Man United aren't good enough to accommodate Ronaldo's refusal to work
It was obvious Ronaldo would have this impact on United, but few listened.
Was anyone that surprised when Leicester City beat Manchester United 4-2 on Saturday? Even with Leicester out of form, and United boasting an array of glamorous names on top of their impressive away record, it always felt like a potential banana skin for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side. Technically, the result can be considered an upset, but it came as no shock to anyone who has been paying attention to United's recent performances, which have been tactically disjointed, and reliant on individual magic to get them over the line.
This isn't a new phenomenon. Throughout Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's reign as United boss, they have been carried more by momentum and nostalgia than any sense of tactical cohesion and long-term vision. The long-term vision is trophies, but the methodology? If anyone sees any evidence of a plan, please do let me know.
Not every manager has to be at the forefront of tactical innovation – look at how Zinedine Zidane won three consecutive Champions League titles with Real Madrid. He managed individual players well, commanded the respect of the dressing room, and made tactical tweaks where appropriate to ensure the quality of his players would make the difference when it mattered most, much like his mentor, Carlo Ancelotti.
But Solskjaer is absolutely not Zidane, and he has not demonstrated any sort of tactical nous to make a top-heavy team of superstars work to the extent that they could in any way challenge for a title.
This would be just about manageable if he had a young team who could at least out-run their opponents, but he does not. The addition of Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer - for all his commercial value and the warm, fuzzy feeling it gave fans who remembered his first spell at Old Trafford - has only added to the problem.
Sure, he has scored five goals so far this season for his club–an impressive tally given his age. But, just like it did at Juventus, this masks a greater problem that his presence is creating: his refusal to press.
There was a moment during United's win over Villarreal in the last round of Champions League games that perfectly encapsulated this issue. A through ball was played towards Ronaldo, who was making a run down the left wing. The ball was slightly misplaced in relation to Ronaldo's run, and the Portuguese threw his arms in the air and gave up chasing the ball. Edinson Cavani, meanwhile, turned the burners on and was able to keep the ball in play and the attack alive.
This is not an isolated incident. Watch any United game when the opposition are building from the back and just focus on Ronaldo. He walks, and consciously makes no effort to pressure the defenders in possession. It's understandable why he does this; he is 36 now and does not have the energy he had in his 20s, he needs to conserve it for key moments in attack.
But the knock-on effect throughout the rest of the team, which is also desperately lacking balance, is becoming a huge problem. If there is no pressure from the front, any pressure from the midfield becomes almost futile, exposing a defence to attacks in which they are outnumbered far too often.
And the stats back it up. At the start of October, statistics produced by Statsbomb via FBref showed that of all the attackers in the Premier League with over 270 minutes to their name, Ronaldo pressed the least out of all of them. And not just by a little bit, Ronaldo's 'pressures per 90' (2.7) were just over half that of the next 'laziest' attacker, Allan Saint-Maximin (5.2). Consider that Saint-Maximin plays in a side who intentionally surrender possession most of the time in the hope of hitting teams on the break, and Ronaldo's stats look even more concerning.
For a team that want to dominate the ball, and win it back quickly, this is not sustainable. In the modern game, having a couple of workhorses cannot make up for a lack of defensive effort elsewhere. Pressing is a vitally important, intricate part of the game, and if one player does not pull his weight, the entire system falls apart.
This has culminated in United suffering from an identity crisis. What do they do? Are they a possession team? Not really. Are they a counter-attacking team? Kind of, but not intentionally. Do they press? Definitely not with any conviction. But they've made some big name signings and their manager scored a winner in a Champions League final once.
As many predicted when he arrived, Ronaldo will help United win games they would have won 2-0 by an extra goal or two, but when they come up against teams with equal or close to the same quality on the pitch, his reluctance to run without the ball will severely restrict their chances of winning.
What makes this worse is that Ronaldo was as much a feel-good signing for fans as a thoughtful addition to the playing squad, and that he is managed by a man who seemingly lacks both the willingness and authority to drop him. That's a bad combination, and could lead to United's season being effectively finished over the course of the next six weeks unless immediate action is taken.