Cristiano Ronaldo has returned to Old Trafford and will wear the mythical shirt with the number 7 on his back, but he is a completely different player from the star who left Manchester United 12 years ago. In some ways, the 36.year.old Portuguese is the opposite of himself at the age of 24, because his physical abilities are incomparable.
Ronaldo’s game in his first term at Manchester was mainly based on speed, dribbling and constant change of positions. When the Red Devils won the Champions League in the excellent 2007/08 season, he was part of a multifaceted and flexible trio with Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez. None of them had a very defined slot on the field, and they could switch roles between them. Ronaldo enjoyed more on the right wing in those days, but he was very effective on the left as well and often galloped through the center as well. His explosive power was immense and later he was even more evident in the white uniform of Real Madrid.
Now that the body has matured, Cristiano Ronaldo can no longer plow the pitch for 90 minutes as before. He is unable, nor willing, to play on the wings. In contrast, the percentage of his utilization of opportunities on the pitch has only improved over time, and in recent years – especially last season – Ronaldo has become a wide striker. Thanks to his genius and vast experience, he knows how to find the free spaces near the gate even when the brakes try to cling to him at any given moment. Also in the past Ronaldo really liked to sneak into the box and finish moves with one touch, but now it has become the most central part of his style – the team is supposed to provide him with the balls, and he has to put them in the net. His defensive contribution and the pressure on the opponent’s players with the ball, who were very good in the past, are almost irrelevant at his current age.
Ronaldo’s last match in the World Cup qualifiers well demonstrates his most outstanding qualities at this stage. The Portuguese had a hard time breaking through Ireland’s bunker, in part because their game was not fast enough, and were close to a sensational loss in Lisbon. But then, right in the final minutes, they managed to provide two wonderful elevations to Cristiano’s head – and his two strokes brought the turnaround on the way to a 1: 2 victory (and on the way also to setting an all.time record in the number of goals on the team). It is also symbolic that his last touch of the ball in Juventus’ shirt was a perfect and spectacular shot, one that should have turned into a dramatic victory goal over Udinese, had it not been disqualified because of a difference of millimeters.
Ola Gunnar Solskjaer understands reality well. “Cristiano is a key striker. I want him in the open so he can score goals,” the Norwegian coach declared. Therefore, in principle, the lineup of Manchester United should not undergo dramatic changes following the arrival of the superstar. Last season, the Red Devils used Edinson Cavani as a classic goal striker in quite a few games, and this is exactly the method in which the business is supposed to work with the Portuguese offensively. It will not be trivial to combine them, and it is likely that the veteran Uruguayan will get his most significant minutes while the veteran Ronaldo will get even more rest.
Cristiano himself will have to put up with the fact that he is unable to regularly play 90 minutes twice a week, and Manchester United is just the right club to take a step or two back when it comes to hunger being on the pitch at any given moment. Old Trafford is a legend anyway, and he has no need to prove himself. This is where he can also be a mentor, contributing from his vast experience in training to his young teammates and sometimes being a kind of assistant to Solshiar. This mental change is possible for him in only two teams – the other is Sporting Lisbon where he started his career. He will be the dominant star, but will go into rotation, like all the other top players on the roster.
Ronaldo’s arrival is ominous, especially for Anthony Martial, who was often included as a key striker for Solskjaer when he played. With Ronaldo and Cavani on the roster, the unstable Frenchman will not have an easy time making his way into the squad, and there is a reasonable basis to believe that the club will consider selling him if the right offer arrives. On the other hand, the other players may actually benefit greatly from the feedback of the great idol.
For Marcus Rashford this is a meeting with a childhood hero, which he dreamed of imitating when he was accepted to the club’s academy. Solskjaer likes to use it on the left wing, especially in a 22.214.171.124 formation, and it may work well this season as well when Jadon Sancho mans the box on the right. Mason Greenwood’s minutes will be hurt, naturally, as a result of the acquisition of Sancho and Ronaldo, but the striker, who will soon be celebrating his 20th birthday, is a versatile player who can rotate in a variety of roles – and Ronaldo’s lessons will benefit him greatly.
Bruno Fernandez is also expected to particularly enjoy the collaboration with his compatriot. They are already well acquainted with the team, and the playmaker may improve his number of cooks in the coming season – simply because Ronaldo’s chance utilization rate is better compared to others. The two will have to reach an agreement on making the free kicks and penalties, but beyond that there is really no friction between them. Paul Pogba, who started the season on the right foot with wonderful offensive displays, may also arrange for Ronaldo quite a few valley situations.
In games where Solskjaer would prefer to continue the 126.96.36.199 method, he will likely be like Pogba’s place in the central link, alongside Scott McTominy or Fred, with Fernandez continuing as a playmaker. Sancho and Greenwood (or Rashford when recovering from surgery) will play on the wings, and Ronaldo will dominate the field. Ronaldo will function as a central striker without problems even in a classic 4.3.3 formation with extremists – and this may be the recipe for dealing with inferior rivals.
The most significant change compared to the lineup with Kabani is that other players will be required to do more black work without a ball because Ronaldo will not help them. Fernandez, who is known for his determination and enormous work capacity, always puts pressure on the opponent, regardless of his teammates – so for him the issue is not relevant at all. It will be more important for Greenwood and especially Sancho, but the young guys are definitely capable of meeting the task – and they have a lot to prove this formative season.
Bottom line, Ronaldo easily entered the lineup tactically, because United’s existing system suited him like a glove – in stark contrast to the imaginary scenario in which he would sign at Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Solskjaer does not have to make far.reaching changes to give him the stage, and the Portuguese side only needs the understanding that he can no longer be on the pitch all the time.