Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United critics are missing the point
When Cristiano Ronaldo thundered in an unstoppable volley in injury time in Bergamo on Tuesday the immediate and obvious question to pose was: “Where would Manchester United be without him?”
It’s an instinctive reaction really, but in the cold light of day such simplistic questions don’t stand up to wider scrutiny. United didn’t have Ronaldo last season and finished second, for a start.
They’ve signed him this season because they knew he’s as close to a guarantee of goals as you’re going to get in the game. The fact he’s producing that is vindication for the decision to beat Manchester City to his signature.
United signed the world’s best goalscorer to score goals. To now wonder where they’d be without him is irrelevant, he was signed for this very reason.
The same kind of narrative often took hold around David de Gea during his prime years at United, when his excellence would keep them in games. Yes, United were allowing their goalkeeper to be too overworked, but they signed one of the most promising goalkeepers in world football to make big saves.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer certainly gave short shrift to the criticism of Ronaldo during his press conference yesterday.
“He’s one of the best players that’s ever walked on this planet,” he said. “And his impact so far on and off the pitch has been absolutely immense.
“The goals he scores, the way he conducts himself in and around the place. How people can see that as a negative… I can’t see that one.
“We’re really, really pleased he’s started off as he has. He scores goals, works for his team, and is a top, top professional.”
Ronaldo’s impact, with nine goals in 11 games, is pretty much what they would have expected to get. Maybe too many of his goals have been crucial, but that is a failure elsewhere in the team. The 36-year-old is one of the few players in the squad currently performing to his ability.
Much of the criticism stems from Ronaldo’s relative inaction when he doesn’t have the ball and that lack of pressing, but that shouldn’t be coming as a surprise. Anybody who watched him for Juventus – and United clearly did – would have known the script and what to expect. He saves himself for the big moments now, much as his contemporary and rival Lionel Messi does.
United’s issue is they have yet to adapt to Ronaldo’s approach as a unit, but that’s not the fault of Ronaldo. He’s bringing far more to the team than he’s taking away.
One of the sub-plots of derby day today is the intrigue around what would have happened had Ronaldo joined Manchester City in the summer. It’s an unthinkable prospect for everyone on the red half of the city, so unthinkable it forced them into action to bring him back at Old Trafford instead.
But City’s failure to score in six of their 17 games so far this season shows their need for a goalscorer and they don’t get better than Ronaldo. Yet his lack of pressing would clearly be an issue in a Pep Guardiola team. If Guardiola was willing to find a way around it, United certainly should be, given they’ve never been a really aggressive pressing team under Solskjaer.
So far it feels like United haven’t made the adaptation from having the energetic Edinson Cavani leading the line to the more passive Ronaldo. Their union in a 3-5-2 last week provided a good blend, but if it’s a 4-2-3-1 and Ronaldo is the figurehead, the approach needs more work.
To label that as a criticism of Ronaldo, however, is missing the point. He’s doing exactly what United signed him to do. They need more players to follow that example.