The Cristiano Ronaldo debate: Is he the problem at Manchester United?

In Depth
Man Utd's Cristiano Ronaldo

Few moves in football history have been as celebrated and feverishly anticipated as Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United. 

The Portugal international became one of the greatest players in the world during his first stint at Old Trafford, playing a pivotal role in the club lifting three successive Premier League titles from 2007 to 2009, as well as winning the Champions League and his first Ballon d’Or.

In his 12 years away, a further three Ballons d’Or have followed, as well as four Champions Leagues, and four league titles, having scored over 550 goals scored for Real Madrid and Juventus.

Given what he’s achieved, United’s announcement of his signing received nearly two million likes on Twitter, as well as a deliriously excited reaction from fans, the current squad and his former team-mates.

So far so good for the club hierarchy, who have been accused the football club as a content creating vehicle akin to Disney or Netflix more than a sporting project that’s actually focused on winning things.

While amid all the fanfare, some questioned the wisdom of the move.

Inverting The Pyramid author Jonathan Wilson told WhoScored that Ronaldo joining Manchester City – back when it looked like he might have moved United’s rivals – and turning out under Pep Guardiola would be “absolutely hilarious” after his move to Juventus proved “one of the worst transfers in the history of football”.

Wilson didn’t change tack after Ronaldo’s dramatic U-Turn, albeit conceding he was a better fit for United than City.

“It’s an indictment of United that they don’t have such a coherent philosophy and an individual can make an impact,” Wilson said. “But I still think it’s a terrible move, there seems to be this desire to turn Old Trafford into this theme park of Ferguson’s Manchester United.”

Dissenting voices like Wilson’s were washed away in a sea of goat emojis after Ronaldo’s second United debut, which produced delirious roars of joy at Old Trafford as he scored twice in a 4-1 victory over Newcastle.

Steve Bruce’s struggling Magpies actually put Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men under pressure on that occasion, with the emphatic scoreline painting a false picture of the match. It’s also worth remembering that Solskjaer’s United had won their prior three meetings with Bruce’s Newcastle 4-1, 4-1 and 3-1.

Any murmurings of doubt were drowned out by loud proclamations that the Messiah was back to take United back to the Premier League summit.

Regular listeners of The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast will be familiar with Wilson sighing with resignation as he repeated why the Ronaldo experiment is doomed to fail, becoming a running joke – poor performance after poor performance with the same old problems, was there anything new to say?

United’s marquee signing has been doing as he’s always done –  regularly scored goals, including some vital ones –  while everything else has fallen apart around him.

“Honestly, this is getting rather exhausting now, writing on-the-whistle match reports on Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired late comeback after Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired late comeback. “Can’t you just copy and paste last week’s?,” you might ask,” is how Manchester United beat-writer Mark Critchley began one match report in The Independent.

Things had got weirdly meta by the time breaking point was reached, Solskjaer sacked after a shocking 4-1 defeat to Watford. With attention finally diverted away from who was in the dugout, the Ronaldo debate went mainstream on Sky Sports, with Jamie Carragher and Roy Keane in opposite corners.

“Stats have taken over the world; his stats since he came back to Manchester United are good,” argued Keane.

“Goalscoring-wise, yeah…” responded Carragher.

Therein lies the crux of the debate.

The new Ruud van Nistelrooy?

As with latter-day Ronaldo, there is no arguing with Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record in front of goal.

The former Netherlands international is one of the most prolific strikers in Premier League history. Only four players have scored more Premier League goals for United – Wayne Rooney Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Andy Cole.

An overall record of 150 goals in 219 appearances (95 in 150 in the Premier League) is almost unparalleled in English football.

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READ: A tribute to Ruud van Nistelrooy and the playground art of goalhanging

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It’s impossible to claim Van Nistelrooy wasn’t a brilliant centre-forward, but was he what United needed? After all, his time at the club coincided with the most fallow period of Sir Alex Ferguson’s time as a Premier League manager.

The striker’s five seasons at the club yielded just three major trophies; one Premier League, one FA Cup and one League Cup. This was an era in which United were undoubtedly English football’s most dominant force.

In the five years before Van Nistelrooy joined, the club won four league titles, the Champions League and one FA Cup. In the five years after he left, they won four more league titles, two League Cups and the Champions League, as well as reaching another two finals.

Neither of Ferguson’s two era-defining, Europe-conquering teams had a goalscorer as consistently prolific as Van Nistelrooy, but they were undoubtedly better-balanced sides.

The striker couldn’t have carried out the job he was asked to do any more effectively, but there’s a case to be made that having a penalty box specialist was a hindrance to the collective endeavour. Could the same thing be happening again?

What’s gone wrong?

The counter-argument, Van Nistelrooy would fairly argue, is that he was the least of United’s problems in the early noughties.

It was a transitional time for the club, with questionable signings like Eric Djemba Djemba, Kleberson and David Bellion struggling to bridge the gap between Ferguson’s treble-winning side of ’99 and the Tevez-Rooney-Ronaldo vintage of ’08.

The swathes of vocal Ronaldo acolytes on social media would echo that same point; can the legendary forward really be blamed for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactical limitations, Harry Maguire’s loss of form, and a squad that’s severely lacking in quality midfielders?

It’s certainly a valid question. The United that Ronaldo has returned to is not the same club that he left. Unlike Van Nistelrooy, he most certainly hasn’t arrived at English football’s dominant force.

United haven’t won a trophy in four years, with just three major honours lifted since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013. They haven’t seriously challenged for the Premier League title or the Champions League once in that time. The problems at the club, from the lack of direction to the lack of structure, are deep-rooted.

Yet he joined a club that looked in the ascendancy. Last season they finished as runners-up in the league for only the second time since 2013. Jadon Sancho, one of the most outstanding young players in Europe, and Raphael Varane, a four-time Champions League winner, looked to be quality additions.

Solskjaer’s men kicked off the 2021-22 campaign with a brutal and brilliant 5-1 thrashing of Leeds United and took seven points from the first nine on offer prior to Ronaldo’s return.

The reasons why may be a matter of debate, but the fact remains that United’s performances have dropped off a cliff suddenly and starkly following the signing of Ronaldo.

Man Utd’s Record in 2021 (before Ronaldo)

Played: 40
Won: 22
Drawn: 12
Lost: 6

Goals for: 70
Goals against: 37
Clean sheets: 17 (42%)

Goals per game: 1.75
Goals against per game: 0.9

Points per game: 1.95
Win rate: 55%
Loss rate: 15%

Man Utd’s Record in 2021 (after Ronaldo)

Played: 16
Won: 6
Drawn: 3
Lost: 7

Goals for: 26
Goals against: 28
Clean sheets: 2 (12%)

Goals per game: 1.62
Goals against per game: 1.75

Points per game: 1.31
Win rate: 37%
Loss rate: 43%

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READ: 11 crazy stats from Man City’s ridiculously dominant derby win

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Prior to Ronaldo’s return, United had lost six of their first 40 games of 2021. They’ve since lost six of the 13 games he’s started.

Their defensive record has fallen off a cliff, keeping just two clean sheets in Ronaldo’s 15 appearances, conceding almost twice as many goals per game.

Most damningly of all, they’re not even scoring more goals, begging the question – what has the 36-year-old actually brought?

Recurring themes

Ralf Rangnick will be Ronaldo’s fifth manager in the last four seasons.

Massimiliano Allegri, Maurizio Sarri and Andrea Pirlo all lost their jobs at Juventus after failing to deliver the short-term success a statement signing like Ronaldo demanded. Solskjaer, who signed a contract running until 2024 only in July, has now followed suit.

Ronaldo scored goals at Juventus. Lots of them. He broke Andriy Shevchenko’s record to become the fastest player to reach 50 goals in Serie A, doing so in 65 games, and won the Capocapponiere award for the league’s top scorer as the Old Lady barely scraped a top-four finish in 2020-21.

Juventus extended their run to an eighth and ninth successive league title in Ronaldo’s first couple of years, but they went backwards in Europe. They’d finished runners-up in 2015 and 2017, but suffered shock early exits to Ajax, Lyon and Porto during his three seasons there.

Despite the forward scoring for fun himself, his signing didn’t actually result in Juventus scoring more as a team. In the three seasons before his arrival, they scored 320 goals (averaging 1.96 a game), while during Ronaldo’s three seasons there, they scored 293 goals (averaging 1.90 a game).

“Cristiano’s presence had a big influence on us. Just training with him gave us something extra but subconsciously players started to think his presence alone was enough to win games,” Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci recently told The Athletic.

“We began to fall a little short in our daily work, the humility, the sacrifice, the desire to be there for your team-mate day after day. Over the last few years, I think you could see that.”

Still a difference-maker in Europe

While Ronaldo has only scored one goal in his last eight Premier League appearances, he’s scored in all five of United’s Champions League group stage games so far.

Only Real Madrid great Francisco Gento has lifted the trophy more times, and nobody has scored more goals in the history of the European Cup. At the age of 36, Ronaldo has continued to come alive on the European stage, even in a severely dysfunctional and underperforming side.

Europe is the one area where the club has moved forward.

Last season, Solskjaer’s side crashed out in the group stage, paying the price for naive defeats to Istanbul Basaksehir, PSG and RB Leipzig.

This season, they’ve secured the top spot with a game to spare, with late goals from Ronaldo proving instrumental in almost all of their 10 points.

Former team-mate Rio Ferdinand laughed at suggestions that Ronaldo might be the problem at United this season following his last-gasp equaliser away to Atalanta, a sentiment echoed by his many adoring fans.

Critics may point to Homer Simpson’s immortal line about alcohol – “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems” – but the point remains that it’s hard to imagine the side digging themselves out of trouble without him.

What next?

It will be fascinating to see what Rangnick, a Marcelo Bielsa-esque figure famously dubbed the ‘Godfather of Gegenpressing’, can do with Ronaldo, a player he called “too old and too expensive” five years ago.

In mid-October, a statistical analysis piece in The Athletic observed that the Premier League’s highest earner pressed less than any forward in the division, with his off-the-ball work a fraction of players like Diogo Jota, Wilfried Zaha and Neal Maupay. Six weeks later, not much has changed (via FBref).

Caught between Keane and Carragher’s verbal jousting, a grinning Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink actually made a salient point when he managed to get a word in edgeways, stating that for the new boss to be successful he “needs to find a way to get Ronaldo in the team while [accounting for his lack of pressing]”. His record in Europe this season points to a player that can still be effective if used correctly.

Solskjaer evidently failed to find a functional system for the star man. Ronaldo led the line as United suffered three of the worst defeats in their modern history – the humiliation of their 5-0 loss at home to Liverpool, their total lack of resistance in their 2-0 loss at home to Manchester City, the way they capitulated in the 4-1 loss at Watford.

Mauricio Pochettino – who made his name by getting his players to graft from front to back at Espanyol, Southampton and Tottenham – is facing the same headache with Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar at PSG.

All the while, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool – all of whom defend from the front and work diligently without the ball – have pulled away at the top of the league.

Ronaldo continues to demonstrate that he’s still absolutely lethal in the penalty area, but can a top-level team accommodate a player that offers so little outside of it?

Is there still room for a Van Nistelrooy in 2021? Or can Ronaldo, at the age of 36, adapt his game once more?

We’re set to find out. Over to you, Ralf Rangnick.

By Nestor Watach

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