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Does Cristiano Ronaldo change much for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer?

Ronaldo is back. How does that change Solskjaer’s plans?

Cristiano Ronaldo Returns to Manchester United Photo by Manchester United/Manchester United

A host of heroes that have helped shaped the modern history of Manchester United from the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville, current manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and former manager Sir Alex Ferguson have been fawning over Cristiano Ronaldo for years.

Neville did post this on his Twitter account a few months back, however.

The eulogies were never likely to stop once he re-signed for the club a few days before the end of the 2021/22 summer transfer window. Even the unbendable Roy Keane broke into a smile when talking of his former teammate. It’s always been a curious state of affairs that many of these hardened ghosts from United’s glorious past used to indulge Ronaldo in those early years.

Of course, that wasn’t something unique under Sir Alex. Eric Cantona was famously afforded similar treatment. This sort of flexibility suggests it’s unwise to totalize what a Manchester United player is, how they should be managed, the club’s tactical identity, and perhaps most importantly Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United.

Solskjaer’s United change all the time. Some might argue that the addition of Ronaldo will alter everything that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been building because he’ll cannibalize the minutes and space of some of the other players. But Solskjaer’s side has been altering with player incomings since he came through the door.

There have been so many protagonists throughout his reign. It was Paul Pogba when he was caretaker. United then had a rough period before Marcus Rashford blossomed. He was followed by Bruno Fernandes, and the end of last season saw the team be in service to Edinson Cavani.

Ronaldo will be indulged again unless Ole Gunnar Solskjaer does something drastic.

Is it going to be worth it this time around?

Who is going to do his running?

Cristiano Ronaldo was allowed to be the main man for United from 2006-2009 and that reaped great rewards.

Cristiano Ronaldo being an ineffective presser is not news. He wasn’t doing that as an 18-year-old. He’s not going to do it for his homecoming as a 36-year-old. Solskjaer doesn’t have to worry about him tracking runners on the wings either.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hasn’t really created a recognizable pressing scheme during his time in charge, so Ronaldo doesn’t really change much. If anything, eager pressers like Edinson Cavani and Bruno Fernandes would often leave gaps because the rest of the side wouldn't follow their charge.

Manchester City’s current assistant coach, Juanma Lillo, who has been widely recognized for popularizing the pressing game in Spain in the ‘90s had this to say about pressing:

United’s high-pressing seemed perfunctory in most cases. They can completely dismiss that now and go with a mid or low-block system that’ll probably come a lot easier to them.

That’ll still need a lot of tracking back from the wide players and United don’t have too many players who do that. One of them just left for Leeds. Juan Mata does but you can imagine the headlines if United are leading this ‘title charge’ with Mata and Ronaldo up top.

Jesse Lingard isn’t a wide player either and he didn’t make a Premier League start for United last season.

That great United side during Ronaldo’s best years had Wayne Rooney, Park ji-Sung, and Carloz Tevez doing a lot of his running. These guys weren’t just water carriers. Tevez and Rooney’s output in those years would put most of United’s other stars not named Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho to shame.

It’ll be fascinating to see how many passengers Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can carry to make this work.

Only a poacher?

When Ronaldo really found his mojo at United, a big part of that was to do with the departure of Ruud van Nistelrooy. There were on-field and off-field reasons for the same.

This is how Ferguson described the Dutchman in his autobiography:

Now, there are some similarities to the Ronaldo that is joining the side now and the person being described by Ferguson. Ronaldo won’t be making the sallies down the flank but that shouldn't be an issue.

Ronaldo’s probably better off if he just stuck to poaching like Van Nistelrooy did but he still felt the need to roam around for touches of the ball, feel involved, and build some rhythm at Juventus. He’s unlikely to ever get touch tight with a defender, mostly lurking in the left half-space in between the full-back and centre-back before dashing into space.

United fans will be hoping that his single-mindedness doesn’t come at the expense of the team like it did with Van Nistelrooy. Ruud van Nistelrooy’s often seen as an example where playing to the strengths of one player comes at the expense of the team.

That’s a little unfair on the Dutchman, who probably suffered the most from David Beckham’s departure. Cast your mind back to April 2002 when Manchester United played Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League semi-final and Paul Scholes was playing on the right of a midfield five.

So, it’s mostly a matter of fitting him in with players who can complement his game. Ronaldo is still incredible in the air and the left flank shouldn’t be an issue. The right is still not ideal. Wan-Bissaka isn’t going to play the crosses and agitated Ronaldo won’t be a massive surprise there. Sancho can definitely create and Rashford can ping some beautiful crosses but they’re also passengers defensively. Greenwood prefers taking shots.

None of them feel ideal. Dalot might get a second chance but he’s still a bit of an enigma.

Ronaldo will also take shots from distance. He’s still quite capable with both feet. He’ll also look to win cheap fouls, which brings us to this part.

Who takes the penalties and free kicks?

Bruno Fernandes is one of the best penalty takers in the world. It’s also helped him mask the occasional underwhelming performance. Ronaldo takes them for Portugal and that’s likely how it’s going to play out now. Ronaldo’s quite good at the penalties himself. His free-kicks haven’t been great for a while but United haven’t had much success in that department either.

Will this affect Fernandes?

It obviously will. It’ll also alert him to the competition for places in the side, which leads us to the most important question.

What if it doesn’t work out?

Does Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have it in him to drop Ronaldo if he’s underperforming or if the fit isn’t quite right for certain games?

This team doesn’t lack players who’ve tasted success before. Raphael Varane was brought in for that. Jose Mourinho was a ‘serial winner’ and won United its last trophies but the club needs more. Juventus got Ronaldo for the same and they’ve lost Champions League ties to the likes of Lyon, Ajax, and Porto. The sort of teams that United have had some big losses in knockout competitions to under Solskjaer.

If Ronaldo works, it’s all well and good. But if he doesn’t, Solskjaer has to be braver than he was in the Europa League final (David De Gea’s penalty record). Solskjaer’s been talking about adding layers to his side since he got the job. Ronaldo is definitely an additional layer. For United’s sake, we hope that a few layers aren’t lost in the process.