(Authors note: I’m writing about Ronaldo today. And if your reaction to any sort of criticism about the man is to bring up how many Champions League’s he’s won or what about ism on someone else you can just go ahead and x out of this now. Multiple things can be true.)
Outside of the massive homecoming celebrations occurring in the red half of Manchester on August 27th the reaction of more neutral pundits to Manchester United’s sensational signing of Cristiano Ronaldo was met with a more subdued, “hmm, that’s an interesting one.”
United finished last season second in the Premier League in goals scored, but sixth in shots, fifth in non-penalty xG, and a whopping ninth in xG per shot. They did have the third highest npG-xG, which means that only two teams (Manchester City and Tottenham) outperformed their xG more than United did, a testament to their finishing ability.
Those numbers don’t suggest that United’s problem was ‘lack of ruthless finishers.’ Quite the contrary, it tells you the problem was more being able to create shots, and good ones at that.
Cristiano Ronaldo does not solve that problem. If you create the chances, he is (probably) the best in the world at putting them in the net, but those chances still need to be created. So what does Ronaldo do when he’s not finishing chances? These days the answer is, not much else, and it wasn’t hard to see that this was going to cause problems.
Ronaldo’s return got off to a sensational start because of course it did. These things always do. Ronaldo scored twice in a 4-1 romp of Newcastle. Some celebrated the win as a sign that every pundit who questioned the signing was clearly wrong, but the warning signs were showing even in that emphatic win. The hope was that United would make it until December before the cracks started showing.
Turns out it only took a week.
During the international break Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, and Jamie Carragher joined The Overlap and discussed this exact topic. This is what Neville had to say on the matter.
Ronaldo had to be “managed” shall we say. The 2008 Barcelona semifinal away from home Cristiano Ronaldo was shoved up front on his own and (Wayne Rooney) and Ji Sung Park were shoved out wide and (Carlos) Tevez was dropped back onto (Sergio) Busquets. Because you couldn’t carry him in the big games because he generally doesn’t work hard. So he’s playing up front there now so you’re never going to press from the front so the idea that Manchester United are going to be a pressing team with Cristiano is never going to happen because he wasn’t pressing 10 years ago.
United have to find a way of playing to compensate him, like we did 15 years ago when Scholes and Carrick were in midfield, but you had Ji Sung Park working like you wouldn’t believe over here. Rooney was slugging up and down that right wing and Tevez was slugging up and down around him. Everyone else in that team was working like a dog to compensate for Cristiano. If you then put Bruno Fernandes in there, if you then put Mason Greenwood in there, and Paul Pogba in there with Cristiano, you’re going to get cut through on the counter and you ain’t winning any leagues.
The overall point of what Neville is saying is that compensating for Ronaldo isn’t anything new. United had to deal with the exact same issues 13 years ago that they have to do now. Only then the teams other two attacking sensations were also workhorses. There’s a reason Owen Hargreaves came into the team for the Champions League final and not Ryan Giggs. Giggs only started two matches in the knockout rounds that year, one of which was in a heavily rotated side that didn’t feature Rooney or Ronaldo. At this point of his career he couldn’t do that kind of running and you needed to surround Ronaldo with runners.
This current team may have a player in the mold of Ji-Sung Park, but players like Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, or Jadon Sancho may have the attacking talent of Rooney and Tevez but they don’t have the defensive work-rate of that pair.
We all know that Ronaldo doesn’t press. I’ll spare you that graphic from The Athletic because you’ve all already seen it.
Jamie Carragher then gave the predictable response of “what’s more important, scoring goals or pressing?”
The answer is obviously scoring goals. You don’t win matches based on who pressed more but who scores more goals. The fact that the best teams in the world are currently among the highest pressing teams shows that pressing is certainly en vogue but it’s not the only way to win.
The issue with that question, whether asked by Carragher or the many others, is it’s simplifying a very not simple concept. It’s implying that if Ronaldo doesn’t press, the solution is ‘just don’t press. Come up with something else.’
That is far easier said than done because in modern football, you have to defend with 11 players, and if one player isn’t doing their job, it’s going to have a ripple effect on everything else in the team.
That’s what is now happening.
If you’re not going to press, that’s ok. The 07-08 team didn’t press high. They dropped back and let their opponents cross midfield before they got to work.
If you’re not going to press - and frankly if you aren’t going to press - you HAVE to remain compact and organized. You can’t allow gaps to appear between players or the lines. Right now, United are doing a little bit of both and a whole bunch of neither.
As a means of trying to get away from the McFred pivot - and possibly trying something new because the McTominay-Pogba pivot in the Europa League final didn’t work - Ole Gunnar Solskjaer set United up in more of a 4-3-3/4-5-1 in the Champions League against Villarreal. It was a new system, but the players seemed to know their responsibility and knew when to push up to close players down and who their responsibilities were.
In the early going things were working.
United’s plan was to man mark midfielders Etienne Capoue and Daniel Parejo through midfield. Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes were tasked with sticking on them and cutting off the passing lanes. They needed to know where they were at all times so they could be picked up, only dropping off them if they dropped all the way back deep.
Notice how Pogba has to follow Parejo higher up the pitch, dragging further away from McTominay. That’s a gap that can be exploited if you don’t pressure the ball. Notice how Ronaldo is right near Parejo the whole time, but can’t be bothered to move.
Here it’s McTominay sticking with the man in midfield until he bizarrely just stops.
United’s plan was to cut off the supply line of the midfielders. That’s a good plan but if you’re not going to press the back four then it’s the job of the striker to sit on the next line - the midfield. Just look at how Villarreal’s strikers sat off United’s back four and right on their midfield.
The issues that United face is what happens when someone gets dragged out of position, which will usually be Bruno Fernandes as he gets very eager to press high. Here he slowly starts moving towards the center back while still cutting off the passing lane to Capoue, but once the ball is played back to the keeper he starts chasing. This should be the strikers job, but the striker is stagnant. Now that Bruno has left Capoue free, Pogba realizes he needs to pick up Capoue and thus starts running across the field. Suddenly there’s gaps everywhere and Villarreal break this press incredibly easily.
United essentially pressed with 10 men here and predictably got burned.
Against Leicester United were once again all over the place. It was clear from the off they were not going to press Leicester’s back line.
But their shape was continually questionable. At the start they often looked like they were in a disjointed 4-3-3 with Sancho tucking inside as the third midfielder but leaving the right side wide open. Despite the three man forward line, they’re still leaving Tielemans wide open.
They’d quickly settle into more of a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1 which they stayed in for most of the first half, lending belief that this was how they were told to play. (Whenever they did shift to the lopsided 4-3-3, it was always Greenwood pushing high, never Sancho or Rashford which says something).
United are well organized and fairly compact here, but that’s only half the battle. As Leicester quickly figured out, United never really stopped moving, and if you just wait long enough gaps appear. The big reason for that is, well, #7 isn’t going to defend, and thus United’s midfielders have to carry that burden.
When a simple ball is played to Tielemans here, Ronaldo - who is right there - can apply pressure on him from behind which would allow United’s midfield to keep their shape and not give Tielemans many options with the ball. But he doesn’t, and thus Pogba has to step up.
Once Pogba steps up, Bruno comes in too, while Sancho and Greenwood start pushing up on the outsides to close down their men. Despite the ball not being won back or moving deeper up the pitch, Ronaldo continues to push higher up the pitch. Thus when others step up, United are now in a very stretched out 4-1-4-1 that leaves Nemanja Matic with a ton of ground to cover.
Not surprisingly Leicester move right through it.
Again when United are compact and have Leicester in a pretty good position, Ronaldo does nothing to try and squeeze the ball into the compact midfield. Instead he continues to back off and forces Pogba to step up on the ball, creating more gaps.
When United struggle to break down low blocks it’s because teams pack the middle and then trap them out wide. Ball goes out to Greenwood or Wan-Bissaka, there’s two men on them closing them down forcing them to go back. They can do that because it’s either a forward trapping them, or dropping into midfield to cover someone else. United can’t do that either because no one is coming to trap, or because no one is filling in for the trapper.
As I wrote last week, one of the reasons Fred is consistently picked is due to his ability to provide cover when someone makes a run forward. Here Bruno ends up as the furthest man forward, which is something that happens pretty often when he’s on the pitch.
If Bruno is the furthest man forward then it’s on Ronaldo to drop in to cover him and pick up his man, in this case it would be Tielemans who’s literally standing next to him. Tielemans walks, he doesn’t even run, away from Ronaldo who doesn’t even bother trying to stay with him. Only after he receives the pass does Ronaldo make an effort, but by then it’s too late as Tielemans can play a very simple line breaking pass that Matic and Pogba have no chance at stopping.
For Leicester, all it took was a little bit of patience. If you just hold the ball, eventually the gaps appear. Here United aren’t pressing AND Leicester aren’t even doing anything, yet the formation shifts from the 4-1-4-1 to the lopsided 4-3-3. (Had to speed the clip up to make it fit)
And when they’re in their disjointed 4-3-3 it doesn’t take much to create a gap or two.
Michael Cox in The Athletic said it best.
For the third time... you consider the positions of the wide players, vaguely in pressing positions but without the side applying any pressure to the man on the ball, and start to feel sympathy for Matic and Pogba, being forced to cover so much lateral space.
And then when Tielemans receives the ball and spins, you realise the extent of the gap between midfield and defence, and that Matic and Pogba are being forced to cover so much ground vertically, too.
Game after game United are essentially defending with 10 men, and in order to accommodate Ronaldo they’re taking their other good players out of the roles that maximize their abilities and putting them in roles that highlight their weaknesses. Instead of limiting the amount of ground the mobility challenged Matic and defensively challenged Pogba have to cover, it expanded. It’s no surprise that for the final 25 minutes of the match, neither one looked like they could move anymore.
Instead of getting the ball to Bruno Fernandes in dangerous positions, they dropped him deeper and didn’t feed him the ball.
Saturday against Leicester Bruno accounted for just 8.33 percent of United’s total touches, the second lowest total he’s had in the last two seasons. Only 46.97 percent of his touches came in the final third, the lowest total of the season.
Whereas in 2007-08 United had high work rate players like Rooney, Tevez, and Park (among others) to take a shift in covering for Ronaldo, it all falls on Bruno now. United are often asking him to play two or three different roles as a midfielder, number 10, and forward leading the press. For a player that’s already gets burned out playing far too much football, this is only going to expedite the matter.
It’s not just Fernandes. Having to do all this extra work is clearly taking it’s toll on everyone. Last season when the clock was ticking down, it was United you can rely on to score a late goal. This season it’s the opposite.
United were blown away in the last 10 minutes on Sunday. They were outshot 7-4 with an xG of 1.72 to 0.39 (in 10 minutes!), and outscored 3-1. Two games back they conceded an 88th minute winner against Aston Villa, and were only spared from conceding an 85th minute winner to Everton thanks to an offside decision.
This hasn’t been a fluke either. Whereas last season United were significantly outshooting their opponents in the second half, and getting better quality shots in the process, the exact opposite is happening this season.
United have scored two late winners themselves but factoring in how those came about only gives more credence to how tired the players are. Against West Ham it was Matic the substitute playing it to another substitute in Lingard. Against Villarreal it was substitute Fred’s cross, eventually played to Ronaldo by Lingard again a substitute.
That was the moment where the value of having Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch shines through. United don’t have anyone else who could have or would have scored that goal. When the game is on the line in the dying moments United have an advantage in having Ronaldo on the pitch, but it’s also fair to ask if having him on the pitch is the reason United find themselves in so many dire situations late.
This doesn’t all fall on the shoulders of Ronaldo. This post may not be about the manager but that doesn’t mean he’s blameless here. It’s not unfair to wonder if it’s a deliberate tactic to be alternating between that 4-5-1 and lopsided 4-3-3. If it is, that would certainly be a curious decision to put it lightly. If it’s a case of the players not following his instructions, that doesn’t reflect well on him either.
Ultimately this is the bed he made and he’s now tasked with either figuring out how to make it work, or having the stones to make some tough decisions and drop some big names. (And no, it’s not as simple as dropping Ronaldo for Cavani as he too tends to over press and leave massive gaps in midfield. Any personnel decision will need tactical tweaks as well).
Cristiano Ronaldo is not the problem at Manchester United right now, but he’s certainly causing some.