Cristiano Ronaldo is the hero at Manchester United but is also the reason they need one

Varun Pai
By Varun Pai
17 Min Read

2nd place finish in the Premier League; UEFA Europa League final–Manchester United looked almost set to compete for the biggest titles in Europe this season after a progressive campaign last term. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had a great squad in his hand, one that could comfortably compete on all fronts. However, some areas still needed a little more quality.

The backline always needed reinforcements because neither Harry Maguire nor Victor Lindelof could single-handedly command a backline that would earn major silverware. Hence, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer leapt for the crème da le crème of football, as Raphael Varane was signed from Real Madrid. 4 Champions League, 3 La Liga titles and 1 World Cup is more than a sufficient CV to boost the confidence in the ranks and shore up the defence at the same time. Another era that needed tending to was the winger role. 

Anthony Martial had a poor end to last season, but Edinson Cavani managed an excellent one and signed a one-year extension deal because he believed in the project at hand. Mason Greenwood was being groomed to take over in the central role, which would have left the right-wing a little skim for options. Daniel James, for all his quality, was never going to turn into a Champions League attacker or one that could play in the starting line-up of any Top 4 side in the Premier League currently.

Thus, the Red Devils went back in for Jadon Sancho after failing to land his signature last summer. The English international had shown over the past two years at Borussia Dortmund that he is an excellent creator and can apply himself in a youthful free-flowing side. Moreover, he was the original star of the summer transfer window. 

All of this changed when the mere ego of the Old Trafford hierarchy was tickled by the prospect of Cristiano Ronaldo joining Man City. The superstar striker spent six incredible seasons at the theatre of dreams and pretty much earned his place on the world stage while playing for Sir Alex Ferguson in some of the Scot’s greatest sides. The legendary manager, along with Rio Ferdinand, called the Portuguese superstar a couple of times to convince him to make the switch to the red half of Manchester instead, not thinking twice about the kind of repercussions it could have. 

It is often forgotten that even though Solskjaer is respected by the players and was given a lot of love by the fans during the start of his tenure, he is not exactly a legend at the club. The Norwegian was a great striker but was never revered by young stars nor was he on the front page of the newspaper every weekend. Therefore, while he can command admiration, there is a certain limit to it and his ego was always going to be lesser than Ronaldo’s in the dressing room, and perhaps understandably so.

The former Juventus and Real Madrid man has 5 Ballon d’Or’s to his name, 5 Champions League trophies, innumerable goals, and he continues to break the most niche records known in the game. Zinedine Zidane could manage the centre-forward due to his standing in the game back when he was a player and his ability to man-manage his players to a peach.

That has not quite worked out at United this season, with the Portuguese a far bigger problem than Solskjaer expected him to be. It was always a given that the attacker was not going to press as much or close down spaces or hound down defenders into giving the ball. He would defend as much as he could and reserve his energy to produce stellar moments in the final third. He has so far held up his end of the bargain by scoring 9 goals in 12 games, including 3 match winners and 1 crucial equalizer against Atalanta last week. Thus, while one cannot blame him for digging this side out of holes, he is certainly more than half of the reason the club have needed saving on so many occasions this season.

Let us now go through a series of games when Ronaldo has proved to be the decisive factor and his contribution to the game without the goals. 

A) Man United vs West Ham – 

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A day the Red Devils certainly got out of jail. Said Benrahma opened the scoring for the Hammers at the half-hour mark before Ronaldo equalized instantaneously. The game ended 2-1 after Jesse Lingard found the back of the net with a brilliant curling shot, after which David de Gea had to pull off a last-minute penalty save from Mark Noble.

Here, the Portuguese’s contribution was worthy, but Bruno Fernandes did more than his fair share in creating the goal. The 36-year-old produced brilliant movement, but after that, it was merely a tap-in. As the game went into the dying embers, it felt like West Ham were going to nick it. This problem emerged because of Ronaldo’s lack of pressing Declan Rice in the centre of the pitch. The Englishman was bossing the midfield line and running the show, but United’s show-biz superstar did not close him down once, and the East London club mounted attack after attack. Even when Solskjaer’s men did go forward, there was nothing cohesive about it. It was dry and lacklustre and had Lingard not delivered a moment of magic 4 minutes from the final whistle, the result could have gone either way.

Ronaldo never grew into the game, and his lack of pressing almost cost the Old Trafford outfit an important point.

B) Man United vs Villarreal –

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These are the nights that United fans shall always remember. Villarreal found the back of the net after 53 minutes, something well deserved after a dominating first-half performance. Paco Alcacer got his goal, and the Yellow Submarine sat back. Alex Telles delivered a thumping shot at the hour mark before Ronaldo found the winner in the 95th minute, as he scored from an acute angle.

In this game, the Portuguese showed up in the second half, especially after Unai Emery’s men found the breakthrough. Until then, all the 36-year-old veteran could manage was a couple of failed link-up moves or the odd header from a cross or a corner. He never really felt comfortable holding up the ball or running beyond the last man. In fact, there was a moment in the game when he was on the end of an overplayed pass but instead of trying to save it from going out, he ignorantly displayed his dismay at the pass. Meanwhile, Edinson Cavani made a 35-yard burst to stop the ball from going for a goal-kick, and he succeeded as United gained possession again. There were also some scenarios when he would come out on the left-hand side but would fail to get beyond the first man. His winner too, was because Cavani won the ball back, which led to Fred whipping in the cross before Ronaldo headed the ball down to Lingard and the Englishman selflessly set up the centre-forward to put the ball in the back of the net.

He did turn up in the dying embers to save his team, but this was not a one-man job, and his teammates deserved far more credit for the come-back than he did. 

C) Man United vs Atalanta (1st leg) –

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A game they definitely should have lost but took all three points from. Mario Pasalic and Merih Demiral put the visitors ahead in the first half, and the boos around Old Trafford were loud enough to reach Ed Woodward in his private box. However, United turned it around in the second half as Marcus Rashford scored the first before Harry Maguire slammed in the second on the night. Ronaldo turned up with a match-winner on the 81st minute with a scorching header.

A brilliant finish, but that was probably his only contribution on the night. He found it hard to play alongside Mason Greenwood or Rashford on the night, with Fernandes the only willing passer of the ball in the front four. The pressing was almost non-existent, and while he urged his two English wing compatriots to push forward, he never practised what he preached. The bare minimum he would do at Real Madrid and Juventus was cut out passing lanes, but none of that took place against the Italian side on the night. There was the rare fancy flick or a ‘no-look/ chested down pass, but it felt like he was the vulture that swooped in to take the credit for the hard yards put in by the tireless midfield line and a dehydrated Fernandes.

It was a fairy-tale ending to the game, but Ronaldo’s presence was not there until his side actually needed him to get them out of a hole. 

D) Man United vs Atalanta (2nd leg) –

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This was perhaps the one game where the Portuguese fought tooth & nail to get his side back into the game. He was left up with Rashford on the night, but his blinkers did not go on until Josip Ilicic found the first goal in the opening 12 minutes of the game. After putting in some hard work for the rest of the first half, Greenwood and Fernandes combined brilliantly, before the latter set up Ronaldo with the deftest of back passes and the 36-year-old was not going to let this chance go. Duvan Zapata took the lead again in the second half before United’s talisman found the equalizer in added time with an incredibly controlled volley. 

He certainly showed his gusto in this outing and also pressed more often than he would. However, he did misplace a lot of passes on the night. There were several chances of letting in either Fernandes or Rashford through on goal but the Portuguese did not attempt any of it as he rather chose to take a shot from outside the box or passed to one of the wing-backs so that they could cross the ball in. While he did his best to orchestrate moves that would win his side the ball back, it rarely resulted in United getting possession. The equalizer, too, came after Jadon Sancho and Donny van de Beek brought some urgency in the game after coming off the bench 5 minutes from time.

All in all, he put in the effort to deserve the goal, but there are far bigger issues at hand.

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Cristiano Ronaldo is the solution to his own problem at Man United. His lack of pressing puts the other three attackers behind him to defend more and then also create for him when they push forward. This is certainly not how this squad was structured in the first place. Even in a 3-5-2 formation, United cannot hold possession because their star striker will not hound the ball down the moment they lose it, as opposed to their rivals i.e., Liverpool, Chelsea & Man City. 

The two teams Ronaldo has shined against this season are Newcastle United & Tottenham Hotspur. The Magpies are yet to win a game this season, while Spurs sacked Nuno Espirito Santo after the defeat to the Old Trafford outfit– indicating where those two clubs stood when the Portuguese decided to produce stellar performances.

The need of the hour in the summer was always a central defensive midfielder. Ronaldo’s emergence has put Sancho in a beleaguered situation, Greenwood lacking confidence in his game, Fernandes out of breath, Rashford away from his natural game, and Solskjaer to try out new formations. A much-believed myth for the longest time has been that every team would take the Portuguese star, which is true to an extent, but not everybody needs him.

The man is a luxury in himself, and unless one plans to build around him, he is far from an asset. It never feels like United score first anymore because the 36-year-old cannot get going until the moment arises for him to be the big kahuna in the game. His need to become a superhero for the side is admirable but not a sustainable model. The midfielders need somebody to link up with, and the attackers need somebody to press with while the defenders need an outlet. Karim Benzema, Wayne Rooney, and Paulo Dybala have covered up for the star striker’s shortcomings in the defensive phase due to his brilliance upfront. But all those teams were title-winning sides and had some of the best in the business across the squad. 

This side are far from any of those silverware-winning juggernauts. They need balance, stability, and somebody who suits them, not the other way around. Ronaldo is a freak of nature and perhaps the most clutch player to grace the game, but it is high time that he falls in line before United fall by the wayside. 

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