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Manchester United can’t rely on Cristiano Ronaldo – and his last stint proves why

Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United
(Image credit: Getty Images)

To borrow a phrase formerly attached to his team-mate Paul Scholes, Cristiano Ronaldo scores goals. Lots and lots and lots of them. 

So many, in fact, that if you were to watch a clip-reel of all his goals for club and country, each of them granted 20 seconds of footage, you’d still be watching way into the fifth hour. This particular hero’s-journey of a narrative would comfortably, or perhaps uncomfortably, last longer than watching Star Wars plus The Empire Strikes Back

And now he’s back, from outer space, to the place where he became a legend. In his absence – and that of Sir Alex Ferguson, the Yoda to his Skywalker – the formerly mighty Manchester United have been reduced from serial champions to also-rans, finishing 7th, 4th, 5th, 6th, 2nd, 6th, 3rd and 2nd, with an average of 21 points less than the champions; in two of the last three seasons, that gap has been a 30-point-plus chasm.

Even so, the expectation is huge that the return of the prince will help United reclaim the throne. Luckily, Ronaldo is not a man who shies from the spotlight or avoids pressure situations: he feasts on expectation and excretes goals. 

A different Ronaldo 

There is, though, a worry. This is not the same Ronaldo that left Manchester for Madrid. The hair is similar, the Adam’s apple still as prominent, the will to win arguably burning brighter than ever as he rages against the inevitable dying of the light, the cruel insistence of time’s ruthless linearity. 

Few players in history can have shown such determination to adapt and excel, but even he cannot crack the secret of eternal youth. A man born before Stewart Robson was voted onto the PFA Team of the Year, before Microsoft released Windows v1.0, cannot keep running forever.

Instead he has adapted his game over the last decade, from free-ranging threat to focused forward. Real Madrid were only too happy to accommodate this ever-increasing proximity to the opponent’s goal, for which he richly rewarded them by scoring 450 in 438 games, the sort of goal-a-game rate only otherwise associated with pre-war Brylcreem boys and a certain Argentine operating beside the Balearic Sea.

Completing his metamorphosis from wispy winger to steely centre-forward, Ronaldo has operated predominantly in the restricted arena prescribed to the misfiring Alan Shearer when Sir Bobby Robson took the Newcastle United job: the width of the penalty area and the ‘second 18-yard box’. As David Coleman memorably said of Kevin Keegan, “Goals pay the rent,” and Ronaldo gets far more than his share.

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Hiring a goal machine

But United have been here before, with a hyperfocused forward. Ruud van Nistelrooy arrived in 2001, scored on his debut (in the Charity Shield against Liverpool) and didn’t stop for five years. He scored 36 in his maiden season, then surpassed that with 44. Only injury could delay him, and he ended up with 150 in 219 games. 

Trouble was, United weren’t bagging the trophies to match his goal haul. In Van Nistelrooy’s five seasons at Old Trafford, they won the Premier League just once. (For comparison, they’d been champions seven times in the previous nine campaigns - and would win three on the bounce once he left.) There was scant consolation in winning one FA Cup and one League Cup, by now regarded as peripheral competitions United could sacrifice to the Club World Cup and youth development. 

What was worse for Ferguson was that Champions League progress stalled too. That Night in Barcelona notwithstanding, United’s boss had realised that while 4-4-2 could dominate England, it would flounder on foreign fields. (Ironically, the national team simultaneously appointed a Swede utterly wedded to the formation, but that’s another story.) 

Against surprisingly voluble public unease, Fergie retooled United – who had recently developed the luxury habit of rotating four excellent strikers in two positions – into the sort of single-spearhead formation that would soon after become the domestic standard. But it didn’t go to plan. 

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Team shape over individuals

The problem wasn’t the new Dutch striker banging them in, but the extra midfielder Juan Seba Veron. After a promising start, the Argentine underachieved to the extent that journalists dared question the signing, prompting Ferguson to rage “he’s a f***ing great player and youse are all f***ing idiots.”

But Europe wouldn’t yield to yelling, and even with Van Nistelrooy breaking records United exited the Champions League at the semi-finals, then the quarter-finals, then the last 16 (twice), then the groups – the very opposite of progress. 

Ruudly disappointed, Ferguson sold his goalden goose to Real Madrid (of course) and rebuilt again – not to 4-4-2 but to a more fluid forward formation including Wayne Rooney, Louis Saha, the farewell-touring Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and an increasingly prolific Portuguese lad called Ronaldo. 

ALSO READ Louis Saha exclusive: Ruud van Nistelrooy made Cristiano Ronaldo cry at Manchester United training

With Van Nistelrooy gone, Rooney and Ronaldo fittingly shared the top-scoring spot with 23 each as United won the league. Fergie added Carlos Tevez, retained the title and conquered Europe; then recruited Dimitar Berbatov, completed a league hat-trick and reached the Champions League final again. 

Spurning the spearhead, Fergie ushered in the era of the rotating front line, with multiple threats from tactically adaptable players forming a Medusa’s head of an attack: cut off one danger, you get bit by another. In the first five Ruudless years, United won four Premier Leagues and reached three Champions League finals, twice defeated by Pep Guardiola’s peerless Barcelona – no shame there.

The triple (or quadruple) threat

Now, while Van Nistelrooy was a fine player, he was no match for Cristiano Ronaldo; after all, who is, apart from the little fella? And there were mitigating circumstances behind the sudden desertion of domestic domination – not just Fergie’s tactical switch, but a better class of opponents: peak-Wenger teams including the 2002 Double winners and the 2004 Invincibles, not to mention the nouveau-riche Chelsea helmed by Jose Mourinho, the freshly-minted hiring the minty-fresh.

But United’s subsequent success with a less rigid system helped kick off the current era of the triple-threat forward line: Barcelona’s MSN, Real Madrid’s BBC and whatever abbreviation we might ascribe to Liverpool’s Salah-Mane-Firmino trident. Then there’s whatever trio Guardiola selects from an ever-strengthening Manchester City squad.

The worry for United – and this may well define the term “first world problem” – is that by signing one of history’s finest players they might become just that bit too predictable, too reliant on Ronaldo. He will be the apex predator in a team that was already prowling with ever-increasing menace: last season United scored more league goals than in any season since Ferguson retired, eight years and a lifetime ago. 

Fergie’s farewell campaign was also the last time the Premier League Golden Boot winner played for that season’s champions – another suggestion that you might want more than one basket for your goalscoring eggs. Having one literally outstanding threat, no matter how powerful, rarely wins trophies; ask Harry Kane. 

The double-figure test

Like most teams, United have thrived when they have multiple threats, an asset best assessed by counting how many players hit double figures. In both the Treble-winning 1998/99 season and the arguably more imperious following campaign, three players hit double figures in the Premier League, five in all competitions. In Van Nistelrooy’s third and fourth seasons, only one player hit double figures in the league, and it was the same for three successive years in the 2015/16-2017/18 doldrums under Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.

By contrast, Solskjaer – a medal-chested veteran of that rotating fin-de-siecle forward line – has set about varying his attacking threats. His first half-season as United boss ended with four different players on double figures in all competitions, which he has matched in the two full campaigns since. 

Barring Romelu Lukaku, now plying his trade for an ominously impressive Chelsea, all those 10+ scorers – Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, Bruno  Fernandes and Edinson Cavani – are still at the club and capable of repeating the trick. The question is whether they will get the opportunity, now there’s a new figurehead in town.

COMMENT Can Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes play well together?

It would be a fool’s errand to suggest that Ronaldo will weaken United – he will surely score goals by the dozen. But there are questions to be answered and issues to be solved by Solskjaer, now elevated from baby-faced assassin to affably chuckling manager. 

It’s not impossible that the arrival of a genuine superstar will upset the ever-delicate hierarchy of ego; there’s no I in team, but there’s one in genius. It’s not impossible that some players may not be overly keen to play second or third fiddle, no matter how fine the lead violinist. It’s not impossible that hiring an immovable centre-forward will limit the development of homegrown prodigies Rashford and Greenwood. 

It’s not impossible that Ronaldo’s rank-pulling at set-piece situations – this, remember, is a man who scored at his 45th attempt from free-kicks in World Cup and Euros finals – might limit the effectiveness of the superb playmaker Fernandes. And it’s not impossible that the undisputed main striker’s undisputed centrality will make United easier to tactically negate. It’s happened before, and history is no respecter of even the biggest reputations.

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