London: The end of the Premier League winter break, which started on January 24, saw Manchester United, headlined by Cristiano Ronaldo, taking on relegation candidates Burnley on Tuesday evening (GMT). The match, in theory, should have been an easy one for United, considering the gap in talent and wealth between the two teams, yet the better-off team had to settle for a humbling 1-1 draw.
Despite spending more than 150 million euros in the summer transfer window, United have not turned into world beaters they were expected to become with the signings of Raphael Varane, Jadon Sancho and the Portuguese superstar, Ronaldo. Thanks to Tuesday’s match, United now languish in fifth place on the league table, leaving them worse off than their second-place finish last season.
United have suffered humiliating defeats, the most recent one being a penalty-shootout loss to Championship side Middlesbrough, a game that saw Ronaldo’s performance in particular being the target of criticism. He not only missed a penalty, which could have prevented the game from going to the penalties in the first place, but also failed to score even one goal from the whopping 10 shots he took.
When Ronaldo was re-signed by United in 2021, it sent a wave of anticipation throughout the football world, with fans hailing the five-time Ballon d’Or winner as the saviour United needed to end the decade-long drought of not winning the league title. At first, it looked like they were vindicated, for Ronaldo started his run with a brace against Newcastle in his debut for United. The match ended 4-1 in favour of the Red Devils.
Since then, Ronaldo’s performances haven’t hit the lofty heights that are usually expected from him as he has scored twice since new manager Ralf Rangnick was hired two months ago, and though his performances in the Champions League have been outstanding — he scored six goals in five starts — his form in the league leaves much to be desired. Ronaldo has scored eight goals in 16 starts, a number which would be good for most forwards, but is disappointing for someone who averaged nearly a goal a game in his last season for Juventus.
Many fans have blamed the team and the manager for Ronaldo’s performance, but the truth is far more complex than that, for there are multiple reasons for his poor performances.
1. Poor defensive work: Even when Ronaldo was younger, he was not known for his defensive work. He preferred to leave it to other players during his initial stint at Man United, players such as Wayne Rooney and Park Ji Sung. But now that the forward has turned 37, his defensive work has nosedived. He now averages fewer occasions when he really presses his opponents than would be expected from any other forward in the league playing regular minutes.
It is not uncommon for teams to have one player who is exempt from his defensive duties, a notable example being Ronaldo’s greatest rival Lionel Messi, when the latter was playing for Barcelona, but the issue with giving the Portuguese forward this exemption is that his current output does not justify it.
The problem is compounded by the fact that Ronaldo is not the only passenger in the side. The other forwards, such as Marcus Rashford and the now-suspended Mason Greenwood, are also not famous for tracking back, leaving the team vulnerable to quick counter-attacks, which was best seen in their 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Liverpool in October.
2. System does not suit Ronaldo: When one signs a player of Ronaldo’s calibre, the system needs to cater to him, rather than the other way around. Unfortunately for everyone associated with the club, the system in place in it is not suited to his needs.
Ronaldo’s best football in recent times has come when paired with another striker, who can do the hard yards for him, such as Karim Benzema at Real Madrid or Alvaro Morata at Juventus. United have someone who could potentially fulfil that role in Edinson Cavani. The issue with this is that though Cavani is a great player, he’s 36 years old, injury prone and in his last year under contract with the club. With United not making any recruitment in the winter window, there is no one who can consistently fulfil that second striker role.
Man United has so far used a 4-2-3-1 formation, which has seen Ronaldo deployed as the lone centre forward and though he has done well, it still seems like he’s not fully suited to this role despite his goal-scoring record.
3. Not the only star signing that needs accommodating: Under now-former executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, Manchester United were known for signing big-money stars that boosted the commercial profile of the club.
This may have led to the club becoming incredibly over-valued; it has caused a litany of on-field issues. Midfielder Paul Pogba was signed for 105 million and, like Ronaldo, he needs to be accommodated with hard-working partners to showcase his brilliance. His best football at club level has come in a three- or four-player midfield where he has freedom to roam across the pitch. But this is complicated by the presence of United’s star player Bruno Fernandes, who does his best work playing as an attacking midfielder ahead of a two-man midfield.
With both men being on very high wages as well as costing a combined 168 million euros, the club’s manager is incentivised to include them. The previous helmsman, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, had struggled to do so and when Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho were thrown into the mix as well, his inability to deal with these star signings was one of the major reasons why he lost his job.
4. Changes in tactics from manager to manager: When Ronaldo was first signed, the manager was Solsjkaer, who plays a completely different brand of football, compared to his successor, Ralf Rangnick.
Under Solsjkaer, United did not press much high up the field and were content to sit back and counter attack. The attacking football was also unstructured, so the squad relied on the individual brilliance of its star players to get the job done.
This is in stark contrast to Rangnick, who is known for being the man who popularised counter-pressing in Germany and is known for his fast-and-direct style of football, which prioritises getting the ball up the field as quickly as possible. This extreme shift in philosophy has been unsurprisingly hard for the players to adapt to, the most notable victim being right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who has gone from regular starter at the club under Solsjkaer to being benched in favour of the 22-year- old Diogo Dalot.
Ronaldo is not exempt from these struggles either. His lack of pressing is now even more of a concern, considering Rangnick’s previous tenure as manager at RB Leipzig saw his forwards constantly prevent the opposition defenders from playing out from the back.
Although the manager insists that Ronaldo will be a crucial part of his squad, further poor displays such as the aforementioned FA Cup game with Borough may see the forward dropped in favour of the more hard-working Cavani, which an athlete as competitive as Ronaldo may find hard to digest.
5. The club didn’t need Ronaldo in the first place: The biggest issue with the signing of Ronaldo was that when it was sealed, the club was well-stocked with attacking options with the likes of Cavani and the now departed Anthony Martial being able to play the striker role as well as suspended Mason Greenwood being touted to take up that responsibility in the future.
United also did not lack goals last season, scoring the second-most in the league.
What made the signing even more of a problem was the fact that United needed desperately to fill the position of defensive mid-field for the last few seasons and still haven’t done so either in the summer or the winter, and this signing took away funds that could have potentially been used to finance such a transfer. Without a doubt, Ronaldo is a huge star, but football in the end is a team game rather than one of individuals. As long as United do not find someone who can protect the backline, no amount of big-money attackers can win them the trophies they crave for.
This is not to say that Ronaldo cannot come good as the Portuguese has overcome slumps in his form before, in particular in the 2017/18 season, when from his first 14 games in the league he scored only four goals for Real Madrid before going on to net 22 more in the next 13.
One can argue Ronaldo is not the player he was in that season, but if anyone can beat Father Time, it is him.