Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United was supposed to signal emphatically that Manchester United were once again ready to lay their hands on the Premier League title after being pushed aside for almost a decade. But more than two months after his homecoming, things look bleak at Old Trafford as the Red Devils slumped to the sixth spot in the table after a string of losses, bringing into doubt Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s handling of the best player in the world, and the team in general.
As Ole’s men search for a course correction, we take a look at Cristiano Ronaldo’s season with Manchester United so far:
A NEW HOPE
Manchester United were already making a strong case to clinch the Premier League title this year even before the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo. The signings of Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho have bolstered an already strong team, and while Paul Pogba desperately wanted to leave the team this season, a failed bid meant that his services were available for Solskjaer to utilise. With the likes of Marcus Rashford, Edinson Cavani and Mason Greenwood among their ranks, Ronaldo was the last piece of the puzzle that United needed to put together to assemble an unbeatable squad.
After his long stint at Real Madrid, where he broke numerous records, Ronaldo’s move to Juventus was considered an end of the era for the ageing superstar. But defying all expectations, Ronaldo not only overperformed in Serie A but was shortlisted for the Ballon D’or twice during his three-year stint.
The transfer to Old Trafford thus was full of expectations, with the 36-year-old prophesied to lead Manchester United to both domestic and European glory. Ronaldo has a storied association with Manchester United – he was Alex Ferguson’s favourite protege and fans consider him to be one of their own despite his long absence from Old Trafford. Edinson Cavani even agreed to switch his jersey number to let Ronaldo have his famous number 7 shirt back.
A PHENOMENAL START
Ronaldo’s season with the Red Devils started on a spectacular note as he scored twice on his second debut at Old Trafford in their 4-1 win against Newcastle United. He followed it up with a goal in the game against West Ham United, making him United’s top scorer at the time with just two matches in. Ronaldo followed it up by scoring two goals in two Champions League matches – including a crucial stoppage-time goal in a win against Villarreal. The impact on the team was bigger than just the goals – Ronaldo’s professionalism and work ethic reportedly influenced his teammates, and he could inspire them on the field through sheer force of will.
But things have taken a different trajectory since then. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s strategy to rest and rotate the 36-year-old has not gone down well with the fans. Solskjaer has the tough task of keeping Ronaldo fit throughout the season, at the same time utilising his talents to lead the team to victory. But criticism has only increased since then, and even Alex Ferguson has spoken out against the decision to start Ronaldo on the bench against Everton, given the immense potential he represents for the team.
The 4-2 defeat to Leicester City last weekend has raised numerous questions at Old Trafford – with calls for Solskjaer’s sacking growing louder. Cristiano Ronaldo’s approach to the game is much different from the philosophy that Solskjaer has built the team around. Edinson Cavani has performed the role of a tireless forward – falling back when the team have to defend and has the natural ability to tackle the ball. Ronaldo, in contrast, owing to his age and his style of play, cannot perform the same role. He has not made a single tackle this season so far, and has just one interception.
If Manchester United want to utilise Ronaldo to his fullest abilities, they have to rebuild the team with him at its forefront as Real Madrid and Juventus have done in the past. The lack of support from a porous midfield and a leaky defensive unit has only compounded the frustration in Ronaldo’s mind, which is being shown on the field. Another big problem for Solskjaer is the urgency of managing egos in the dressing room, with the likes of Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba already superstars in their own right who have issues playing a supportive role.
CAN THE RED DEVILS SORT IT OUT?
Ronaldo has responded to Solskjaer’s calls for him to play the role of a defender from the front – he worked harder on the field against Leicester City than any time before this season. But United’s tactics at the back are not up to the mark, to say the least, and the lack of rewards for tiring himself out seem to be frustrating Ronaldo. As per reports, Ronaldo asked Solskjaer to make changes to the team’s tactics, with the need for defenders to quickly pass the ball to the forwards being a crucial talking point. United have been used to sideways passing for quite a few seasons and attacking through the centre where Ronaldo is at his best requires quite some work.
Despite three winless fixtures in the league, there is still a long season ahead for the Red Devils. They are just five points behind Chelsea and are firmly in the hunt for a Champions League title where Cristiano Ronaldo brings out his best. The Glazer family has shown faith in Solskjaer repeatedly, and the recent calls for his sacking are unlikely to be heard. But Cristiano Ronaldo seems to have made his intentions clear – United need to feed him the ball more if they expect him to score goals for the team and win them the title.