Soccer

Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United: What should Ole Gunnar Solskjaer expect from the superstar forward?

When Cristiano Ronaldo left Old Trafford in 2009 even his harshest critics would acknowledge he was the second best footballer in the world. This was a player that would transform the fortunes of any team overnight. He may have coveted the move to Real Madrid but this was a player who could have gone to Mallorca or Almeria and given them a decent shot at contention overnight.

The Ronaldo of his Real Madrid pomp was the do it all forward who only needed to get the ball somewhere in the final third to win you games. Now, 12 years on, he can still win games for you but you best be prepared to do a lot more of the ground work for him.

Perhaps for Manchester United that doesn’t really matter. They have players who can get the ball to Ronaldo in the penalty area — Paul Pogba, Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes — and even if they already have an ageing poacher of great renown in Edinson Cavani it is not like a $17.7 million down payment and wages of around $650,000 a week are beyond the means of the greatest revenue generating club in football. If nothing else, maybe that is a price worth paying just to stop Manchester City getting hold of him and erecting another Carlos Tevez style Welcome to Manchester billboard. Ed Woodward has sanctioned transfers for less convincing reasons.

Yet United supporters would be unwise to assume that bringing back Ronaldo immediately elevates them into the upper pantheon of European sides. To do so is to misunderstand what he brings to a team. He is not transformative in the same way as a midfield general might be or even like a Bruno Fernandes was. He does not change how your team plays. Instead, for now at least, Ronaldo offers a reasonable guarantee that if you create chances he will tuck them away.

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Cristiano Ronaldo is a shot machine

Not that he is some freak of nature who dramatically outperforms his expected goals (xG, a metric that assesses the likelihood of any shot resulting in a goal). Of the 30,825 minutes of Ronaldo in Wyscout’s database, dating back to the start of the 2015-16, he has an xG of 271.38. From those shots he has scored 297 goals. In other words he scores around nine percent more than the average striker would from the chances he gets. That is good, very good, though not as earth shatteringly magnificent as his reputation might suggest. By way of comparison in the same time period Cavani has outperformed his xG by seven percent. 

What Ronaldo does is get an awful, awful lot of chances, more than anyone else. And the fact that he does it without being a hopeless volume shooter is very nice indeed. Last season he averaged 5.39 shots per 90 minutes in Serie A. The only two players to attempt more across Europe’s major leagues were Luis Muriel (who often played the role of impact substitute for Atalanta) and Ronaldo’s old rival Lionel Messi. Even that gaudy number of attempts on goal was in itself an almighty drop from the 36 year old’s final season at Real Madrid, where he fired at goal 6.97 times per 90. 

One might assume that the growing infrequency of his shots reflected an ever maturing attitude towards letting fly. And yet his three years at Juventus did not transform his shot diet. Per Wyscout, his xG per shot in 2015-16 was 0.14. In 2020-21 it was 0.15. As a pure goal scorer he is not all that much less effective now than he was when he left Madrid. Certainly he is not the figure of his absolute unstoppable pomp when he averaged more than a goal per game every season between 2011-12 and 2015-16 but equally with Juventus he was arguably not playing in teams that were remotely of the same standard as those great Madrid sides.

As a pure scorer he is still the player that finds all this space in a penalty area when the opposition have seven players back.

Cristiano Ronaldo finds space to create a shooting position in a Euro 2020 match between Belgium and Portugal
Wyscout / ITV Sport

An unparalleled aerial threat

Of course, sometimes that space is in the air above the players trying to defend him. This a player of remarkable physical attributes. Ronaldo’s hang time would put some of the NBA‘s finest to shame. He knows exactly when to time his jumps, where to position himself and how to stop defenders getting the ball ahead of him.

Ronaldo simply has no right to emerge the better of an aerial duel with both Presnel Kimpembe and Raphael Varane, to whom he gives up about an inch and a half. Yet somehow with the former pushing into his back he is able to turn a slow, lofted pass from Renato Sanches into a decent header that brought a solid save out of Hugo Lloris.

Ronaldo has made a habit of turning awkward positions into impressive headers
Getty Images

And that was just one of the difficult ones. In the last four seasons he has scored 22 headed goals in domestic league and Champions League matches.

You suspect that he could go on playing into his 40s and he would be finding space in the penalty area. He does not exactly give the impression of a player who is going to lose his remarkable physique any time soon. He has remained an elite scorer for years when so many of his contemporaries have faded away. He will continue to be excellent at getting into  in the Premier League.

Ronaldo still scores goals, but he does less of everything else

However that is now all he is. The Ronaldo of his first spell at Manchester United and his early years in Madrid could do it all. Give him the ball with three defenders between him and the goal and watch him surge beyond them before thumping the ball into the top corner. In the 2010-11 season he averaged 5.27 take-ons per 90 in La Liga. Nine years later that number was at 3.08 and even that was an upswing from where it cratered to in his latter years with Madrid. In that 10-11 campaign he provided 18 assists for teammates, four fewer than he registered in all his games for Juventus.

United will have to be prepared for him to be a passenger on defense. Last season he ranked 535th among 619 players in Serie A for the number of times he applied pressure to an opponent per 90 (7.23). It is worth remembering that a sizeable proportion of those below him are goalkeepers, for whom it is probably not the best idea to try to steal possession in the opposition’s defensive third. In his past four league seasons he averages one interception every 465 minutes. In seven straight league games last season he did not so much as attempt a tackle.

With Ronaldo in your team you can either not play high pressing football, play it badly or plan for 10 players to do the work of 11. What is curious here is that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted to use preseason specifically to advance United up the pitch and to move them away from their tendency to defend in a low block. With an almighty small sample size caveat in their first two Premier League games of this season the Red Devils attempted 111 pressures per game in the middle or attacking third of the pitch, a fair chunk more than the 92 from last season.

That goes out of the window with Ronaldo. Though if United do get out in transition it’s certainly not as if Ronaldo is slow. He showed in Portugal’s Euros game against Germany that he still has the afterburners required to keep pace. But it is not as if Ronaldo will contribute to getting those moves off the ground. Win the ball back for him and he is still deadly in broken play. But you’re going to have to do that work without him.

It’s possible that a team designed to provide Ronaldo service may well win enough points to justify the effort. There will be games where he scores goals few other forwards would have. The tactical price for that is compromising your system, carrying a player in the hope that what they can do in the penalty area is worth it. That is not a compromise that Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel or Pep Guardiola usually have to make.

Was it what United needed? Last season they had more than enough players who took shots (Bruno Fernandes’ 3.43 per 90 is not all that far behind Ronaldo’s mark). As a team they outperformed their xG partly due to good fortune and the hot streaks of some players — a group Bruno certainly belongs in — and partly because they have a fair few players who are very good at putting the ball in the net. As a pure scorer Ronaldo is an upgrade on all of them. But he was not the place setting midfield general they undoubtedly needed (and may not get now) following the arrivals of Varane and Sancho.

As a scorer Ronaldo’s current profile is a natural fit for United’s needs. But more broadly he does not radically change who United are. They were a piece light before he arrived. At the start of the day they were probably the third or fourth best team in England. Now, after the deal that has sent the footballing world into delirium, they are probably the third or fourth best team in England.



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