If Cristiano Ronaldo returns to Manchester United*, David Moyes' side is likely to look more like Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid side rather than Sir Alex Ferguson's 2006-09 ones -- a great team the Scot built around the world's then greatest player.
* We've covered the possible return of Ronaldo in other posts so the discussion of whether it might or might not happen should exist there. This is purely a discussion of how he might fit in at United.
Moyes is likely to be less reactive as a United manager than he was in his Everton reign due to the simple fact that he will inherit a plethora of attackers whose quality is much higher than those that ply their trade at Goodison Park. In addition, other quality players could be arriving this summer in order to bolster the attack -- like Ronaldo. Moyes, though, at heart, is a reactive manager and while he'll simply look to overwhelm lesser sides with an all-out attack, he'll probably focus on nullifying opponent's strengths while exposing their weaknesses in 'big games'.
Ferguson, who is deservedly lauded for his attacking ethos, became increasingly pragmatic in his final decade as a manager -- and this coincided with an increasingly improved European record. In the 2006-09 years, United often were deployed in a disciplined 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape while they looked to hit opponents on the counter in 'big games'. The attacking trident -- whether that included Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Park Ji-sung, Nani, and Ryan Giggs -- was devastating because of their fluidity. Moyes, though, is likely to deploy United in a 4-2-3-1 shape and there's a decent chance that they'll look to play on the counterattack in 'big games'.
Mourinho, too, at heart, is a pragmatic manager. The Portuguese manager often overpowered lesser La Liga and European opponents with the talented quartet of Ronaldo, Angel di Maria, Mesut Ozil, and either Karim Benzema or Gonzalo Higuain being supplied by deep-lying playmaker Xabi Alonso. Against tougher competition, such as FC Barcelona, they looked to play on the counter in their base 4-2-3-1 shape.
At Everton, and especially in recent years, Moyes focused on attacking down the flanks. Specifically, his two deep-lying central-midfielders swung the ball side-to-side in an effort to find an overload in the wide areas. Left-back Leighton Baines has excelled in getting forward in order to create chances while his partnership with Steven Pienaar on that side of the pitch has been one of Europe's best as of late. Baines' aggressive positioning often left Everton exposed on that side when the opposition counterattacked and much responsibility was given to left-sided center-back Sylvain Distin and the two deep-lying central-midfielders to cover for this often exposed side of the pitch. However, there was definitely more good than bad from the Everton left-side so Moyes was more than happy to stay with this somewhat gambling approach. Does this risk/reward scenario on the left-side sound familiar? It's a similar one to any team that has Cristiano Ronaldo in it.
When the Portuguese superstar was at United, he played in three positions in attack: on the right, on the left, and through the middle -- the latter often when Ferguson felt that he needed a more defensively responsible player tracking an opponent's full-back. Now, though, Ronaldo is very much a left-sided wide forward that likes to wander around the pitch looking to pounce on an opponent's weak areas. And he's brilliant at it. But he no longer desires to play through the middle so there are times when the left-side of a Ronaldo side is exposed defensively.
Because of Ronaldo's lack of interest defensively, Jonathan Wilson has pondered whether the wide forward is a strength or a weakness. I'm a massive fan of Wilson's work, but in my opinion, that's a preposterous question -- the Portugal international is one of the greatest footballers ever and he's undoubtedly a strength.
Gary Neville, a full-back that often partnered Ronaldo on the right-side during their Old Trafford years together and is an authority on the matter, explains why Ronaldo should be given the freedom to express his genius, despite his tendency to neglect any defensive responsibility:
"It got to the point that as right-back in that 2006-07 season I never complained if he could go off for 30 minutes and leave me two on one.
He completely changed my opinions about the game.
I'd always been taught that I must have a right winger in front of me. But I knew he'd go and win us the match.
Darren Fletcher would say that we'd have to work around him, because he'd always do more harm than opposing players he was leaving free to go forward.
As a 27-year-old at the time, an experienced figure, I was expecting to tell this 21-year-old how it was.
And he was telling me something completely different. I'd been playing with my blinkers on for years but he made me open my eyes to different ways of playing the game.
I'll never forget coming in training one day when the session was eight hard runs but, for the last two, he seemed to be taking it easy.
He simply said: 'Too much water kills the plant.'
Even today I remember those words.
I'd always been brought up to believe that every single minute of every day was a fight and that you had to battle continuously, even in training.
But though he would work hard, he would train with efficiency. If there were eight runs and he'd done six well but felt that was enough, he'd do two at his own pace. He knew his own body.
So who was the wise one?
All the premeditated tactical theories I had learned about getting and staying in your shape, and tracking back with your runner, all the things that had been drummed into me, were thrown out over those two years because we had a player who could make up his own rules with the blessing of his team-mates.
He has helped to redefine the game by creating a new breed of flexible forward."
At United, Ronaldo would almost certainly be given the freedom to do whatever he wants from his preferred wide left position. From there, Moyes would build a side around the great player. The left-back, whether that is Patrice Evra or a possible replacement like Baines, would be asked to cover a tremendous amount of space up and down the left touchline. The left-sided center-back would need to be an aware covering defender with a decent amount of pace (perhaps this explains the possible Ezequiel Garay links?) while the left-sided central-midfielder would also be asked to put out some fires (Marouane Fellaini? Kevin Strootman?). United would likely concentrate on keeping their center-backs and two central-midfielders compact and narrow on opposition counterattacks in order to delay them by forcing them wide.
In attack, Robin van Persie wouldn't be effected much as a No.9 and it's possible that he and Ronaldo could combine for 60 league goals. The Portuguese attacker also creates more than most realize (10 La Liga assists and 1.8 chances created per game to go along with 34 league goals this season). Shinji Kagawa would be the link between midfield and attack as the creative No.10 while the right-sided player -- whether that be Antonio Valencia or Wilfried Zaha -- would spread the attacking space by providing width and a supply of crosses for RvP and Ronaldo (a devastating aerial threat).