Help or hindrance? Ronaldo’s conundrum will define Solskjaer’s tenure at Man Utd
As soon as Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer plan to Manchester City collapsed and a sensational return to his former club was on the agenda, supporters and pundits split into two camps to debate the impact it could have.
One side believed his star power, strength of will and ability to summon goals from scratch would elevate Manchester United to a new level.
The other team believed that Ronaldo’s waning influence outside the penalty area could exacerbate United’s problems with the ball advancing into midfield – and not covering up the cracks.
No one expected both sides of the argument to be presented so well on the pitch, one after the other, in their opening two matches. The debate will rage throughout the season.
Ronaldo, at an advanced stage, is divided opinions when it comes to differentiating the raw statistical phenomenon from his goals and their specific use for a team. His three-year stint at Juventus was inconclusive.
Ronaldo has scored 101 goals in 134 games, but Juventus fell away from winning the Champions League (without ever making it past the quarter-finals) and failed to win Serie A last season for the first time in 10 years.
Then again, the club’s decline can be blamed on many numbers and Ronaldo was, at worst, a symptom of poor decision-making.
At United there is a lot to do for us, with a 4-1 win over Newcastle United and a 2-1 loss to Young Boys setting us up perfectly for the next row above its true worth.
Let’s start with the case of Ronaldo’s signing.
He grabbed Newcastle’s game by the neck of the neck, scoring twice to bring a drifting contest back in favor of the hosts. This is precisely what he was hired to do; precisely what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs for a project built on individualism and echoing the ambience of the Sir Alex Ferguson era.
Solskjaer’s lack of tactical detail in his progression through the lines (he lacks structured possession; the carefully crafted open-play moves that define elite-level management in 2021) typically leaves United stuck in the face of deep defense.
By improvising their attacks, United’s game easily becomes flat and passes become sideways. This is the inevitable consequence of management in broad strokes.
Where Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola can adopt swirling patterns predicted four or five steps in advance, Solskjaer’s side passes and moves by one and by two, thinking in place. This is why it becomes predictable and relatively easy to follow for a compact defense.
Ronaldo could simply make that point irrelevant by winning the ‘moments’, scoring low percentage chances that allow United to win games despite the wider form of the contest.
Last year they were 12 points away from the title and drew 0-0. If Ronaldo could have scored a goal in all of them, they would have finished above Man City. These are small margins.
Moreover, the whole idea behind Solskjaer’s approach is to evoke the energy of the Fergie era, to create waves of direct and individualistic attacks that scare the opposition.
The atmosphere at Old Trafford for the Newcastle game, and the resulting fury over their performance, suggests that Ronaldo – a true star of the club’s glory days – can help make it happen.
The strength of Solskjaer’s tactics against the “Big Six” clubs has always hinted at the possibility of success with Galacticos who can intimidate the rest of the division, just as Zinedine Zidane has succeeded at Real Madrid. Could Ronaldo be the last piece of the puzzle?
Interestingly, he might even be able to improve their urgency, verticality, and ball progression through midfield. Against Newcastle Ronaldo often fell deeply and demanded possession, United center-backs – knowing who the boss is – did so quickly, slicing a sharp forward ball in the final third.
Perhaps Ronaldo’s dynamism, his sharp angles, his urge to play to the beat, will rub off on the team and make up for a lack of detailed coaching.
Now on to the counter-argument, which starts off by saying that Ronaldo was probably not needed for Newcastle, against whom United scored seven goals in two games last season. Steve Bruce’s side is surprisingly open. A real test of how Ronaldo helps or doesn’t help against a deep defense will take place at West Ham this weekend.
The arguments against were presented succinctly by the performance against Young Boys. Here, Ronaldo’s low pressing, minimal movements and low energy meant United lacked a proper fulcrum around which to build their attacks.
They only had two shots on goal the entire game, and despite their red card, things shouldn’t have turned out like this. In many ways – from Ronaldo’s crook after his request for a penalty kick was denied, to the squad’s complete lack of cohesion – it was like a Juventus game.
It was also the first example of Ronaldo’s poor pressing. Some argue that Solskjaer’s deeper defensive line and preference to back down rather than squeeze make this deficiency redundant, but that’s not true.
By not applying pressure or blocking passing lanes by making sure he’s in the right place, Ronaldo will allow the opposition to push through the lines and into United’s weak central midfielder.
Whether it’s the McFred partnership or Nemanja Matic alone, the Man Utd midfielder is vulnerable to counterattacks that threaten to undermine Solskjaer’s plans.
The Young Boys’ equalizer was a collective United mistake, but it should be noted that the move started with Ronaldo falling back, out of position, leaving a huge gap for striker Moumi Ngamaleu to cross the pitch. He played the ball in midfield, continued his run and seconds later put the finishing touches on a low cross.
The most obvious way to protect a midfielder who is struggling to hold his ground, close space or face runners is to block access to that area of ââthe pitch. Ronaldo’s poor pressing can further expose Fred, Scott McTominay and Matic.
Additionally, Solskjaer’s attempts to fit all of his star players into the starting lineup means Paul Pogba is likely to play a bigger role – further weakening the spine – and Jadon Sancho appears to be sent back to the left wing. Sancho is uncomfortable here and, while still early days, seems a bit lost so far.
First impressions can be read both ways, then. Ronaldo will continue to divide opinions, from his tactical impact on the team to his influence in the dressing room. It is far too early to say with confidence whether Ronaldo is an assist or a hindrance on the pitch.
All we can say is that no matter how it rocks, that will define Solskjaer’s tenure.