Premier League

CR7- The Return of The King. Chaos Caused Or Necessary Return?

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Manchester United were buzzing when Rumors spread that Cristiano Ronaldo was leaving Juventus and wanted to return to England. Pep Guardiola was supposedly in touch with the Portuguese captain and panic, excitement and anxiety spread throughout the city. Meanwhile, pundits were highlighting the squad improvement and noting down Manchester United’s title credentials for this season, It’s Chelsea or Man United they said.

The arrival of wonder-kid Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund was the key to United’s attack, alongside Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood, with Bruno Fernandes being the supplier and Paul Pogba returning from a blistering form with France, things looked bright for United and were only boosted by the signing of defender Rafael Varane. Things looked even better when they re-signed Cristiano Ronaldo, the title was theirs to lose now.

A guaranteed winner, a leader, and one of the all-time greats, CR7 was the final puzzle piece Ole needed, but 9 games in and the pressure has mounted, perhaps to uncanny levels, can Ole survive? Questions are being asked about whether Ronaldo’s signing has damaged the team, more than it has benefited. It’s not unclear to tell, Jadon Sancho’s slow start and sudden demotion from star signing to bench player tell a lot of how much has changed, in just a few weeks.

Despite Ole’s credentials, can he actually manage Cristiano Ronaldo? Does he have what it takes to control the dressing room? Does he have the technical ability to guide them out of the chaos, and into title fighting credentials? “Give him more time” is the general consensus with the United fans, “trust the process”. How long does Ole need? He has the financial backing, he has the players, he had the time, perhaps it’s time to realize that he just isn’t what Manchester United needs right now.

Let’s break down the possible tactics and gameplay of Man Utd with and without CR7, what’s going wrong, and what needs to change.

The Problem That Ronaldo Brings

CR7 definitely is one of the world’s greatest footballers, his leadership, determination, and incredible drive and goals still make him one of the most dangerous footballers around, even at the age of 36. However, he is 36 and doesn’t do what he could do when he was in his prime. This is the first problem that he brings, he can’t run as much as he could. Ole prefers to play Ronaldo in the number 9 position, a position that he has gotten used to in his latter days, however modern number 9’s do a lot more than just make darting runs and sit behind defenders.

Ole’s wide-men in Greenwood and Rashford/Sancho have to both press and work harder to create avenues for Ronaldo to do what he does best, however, it isn’t in their arsenal to do that. Players like Greenwood, Rashford, Sancho, and Cavani are players that have their own flair, they’re young, English, and want to make their mark in football, not play second fiddle to a 36-year-old legend that’s long past his prime.

United finished last season second in the Premier League in goals scored, but sixth in shots, fifth in non-penalty xG, and a whopping ninth in xG per shot. They did have the third-highest npG-xG, which means that only two teams (Manchester City and Tottenham) outperformed their xG more than United did, a testament to their finishing ability. They brought in Ederson Cavani for another year and signed sensational Jadon Sancho, but nothing has improved since then. Gary Neville had the following to say on the show “The Overlap”:

Ronaldo had to be “managed” shall we say. The 2008 Barcelona semifinal away from home Cristiano Ronaldo was shoved up front on his own and (Wayne Rooney) and Ji Sung Park were shoved out wide and (Carlos) Tevez was dropped back onto (Sergio) Busquets. Because you couldn’t carry him in the big games because he generally doesn’t work hard. So he’s playing up front there now so you’re never going to press from the front so the idea that Manchester United are going to be a pressing team with Cristiano is never going to happen because he wasn’t pressing 10 years ago. United have to find a way of playing to compensate him, like we did 15 years ago when Scholes and Carrick were in midfield, but you had Ji Sung Park working like you wouldn’t believe over here. Rooney was slugging up and down that right wing and Tevez was slugging up and down around him. Everyone else in that team was working like a dog to compensate for Cristiano. If you then put Bruno Fernandes in there, if you then put Mason Greenwood in there, and Paul Pogba in there with Cristiano, you’re going to get cut through on the counter and you ain’t winning any leagues.

Gary Neville, The Overlap, Sky Bet

This is a testament to the problem that Ole is having and raises further questions about the motivation behind signing Cristiano Ronaldo because you can’t sign an ego like his just to be on the bench, neither can you do it because you don’t want him at your rivals. The likes of Rashford, Sancho, and Greenwood aren’t going to do what the likes of Rooney, Tevez, and Ji Sung Park did because (in all respects to those players) they aren’t those types of players. Ole can’t expect to build a team around Ronaldo, his tactics don’t work with Ronaldo in the team, and his players can’t get to their best when Ronaldo still wants to be the best.

The Benefits of Having CR7

No doubt having a player like Cristiano is a major boost in itself to any team. He can come up with a goal from anywhere, he still has incredible legs and the IQ to get into scoring positions. He has 15+ goals in him per season and he brings an array of experience and leadership. The marketing benefits that CR7 possesses are unrivaled and will continue being a massive boost to Man Utd’s shirts and tickets revenue, the Premier League benefits from having a player of his caliber playing in the league, and defenders have something else to think about when marking him.

Cristiano has turned himself and evolved into becoming a great shadow striker. He uses his pace sparingly, and cunningly during matches and this gives him the ability to turn it on in a second to grab vital goals when needed. He still is capable of dragging defenders out of position and is second to none when it comes to heading the ball. Ronaldo is meant to be a mentor and a leader for a bunch of stars that can help elevate Man United to where they need to be, he has the capacity, does he have the desire to be a ‘father figure’?

Man United Without CR7

It’s sinful to say, but Manchester United without CR7 looks like a completely capable beast. Sancho brings his incredible form from Germany, alongside the ever-impressive Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford up front, with the option of adding Edison Cavani, United’s attack looks young, potent, and overflowing with flair and experience. Ole will allow his wide players to run at opposition defense and create problems with pace, quick movement, and direct focus on attack, instead of counter-attack.

Ole could work with his young starts to be proactive runners, to press with pace and aggression instead of haphazardly closing down without any real intention and waiting for the counter. Let’s not forget the form that Jesse Lingard was in last season, and Ole has no option but to leave him on the bench. The arrival of talented Dutch midfielder Donny Van De Beek hasn’t been given a chance alongside Paul Pogba, with him preferring McTomminy or Fred instead, alongside Bruno Fernandes.

The players with the ability are there but aren’t being utilized, and it is such a privilege to have such a high caliber of players on the bench, they walk into most teams around Europe. United’s inability to press, or be compact enough when they sit back and defend cause problems, particularly when their midfield pivot is dragged out of position causing issues to a frail defense of Maguire and Lindelof.

So if you’re looking at the personnel available at Old Trafford, how are they not performing to their best? How is Man United looking so frail despite having one of the best squads in Europe? Is it time to look at Ole?

Ole’s (Lack) Of Coaching and Tactics

United stats defensively are atrocious despite having quality in midfield and defense. Their inability to defend in a compact, structured way is little about the quality they have and more about the tactics (or lack of) employed, we’re not even going to discuss the embarrassing runs that their forwards make when trying to ‘press’.

Conceded 15 goals 16th in the League
1 Clean sheet 18th in the league
104 Tackles20th in the league
Man Utd this season

United displays a lack of direction, Ole doesn’t know who to play because he doesn’t know how he wants to play. Perhaps he has done a fantastic job in getting United to where they are, post-Mourinho, but does he have the tactical acumen that they need to push on and win titles?

He’s switched tactics numerous times throughout the season (more so than Pep Guardiola) from a 4-3-3 to a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1 and doesn’t have a stable starting 11. For now, it doesn’t seem like Cristiano Ronaldo is the problem at Manchester United but he most certainly does give them another dimension to consider. Ole’s lack of structure and tactical awareness to play to his player’s strength and incredible errors to employ attacking players when they need to control the game, to playing defensively without the right personnel has continuously backfired, but he’s been saved by last-minute winners and equalizers.

Sunday’s humiliating defeat at home to rivals Liverpool culminated in a continued lack of tactical improvement and unstable starting 11 that were completely out of the game from the minute Naby Keita kicked off the game. Players had their hands in the air, ran out of position, and were unable to trouble the Liverpool midfield and defense whilst Ole looked on flabbergasted, unable to conjure any form of tactical changes.

It’s time to stop blaming the players and questioning owners to invest in more when the coaching and tactics aren’t bringing the best of the ones that are there. Perhaps Ole does need more time, perhaps there is a gradual improvement, perhaps he will grow and evolve tactically, can Manchester United afford to give him that space, time, and financial backing?

Title Contenders or Overhyped?

Prior to the season, 19 out of 20 pundits didn’t have Liverpool finishing in the top three. Man United, Chelsea, and Man City had made improvements and brought in enough personnel to make it a three-way battle for the title. Currently, Arsenal sits 1 point behind ‘title fighting’ Man United and following a disastrous result to their rivals, United face Spurs, Man City, Chelsea, and Arsenal over the next few weeks.

OleOut has already started trending on Twitter to compliment the ring of boo’s from the fans at Old Trafford, and he will definitely be feeling the pressure. Ole did however show intent at Spurs when he changed tactics to a 3-5-2 and won 3-0 to earn the victory with Ronaldo and Cavani on the score sheets.

Much is to be seen still as United face City, Arsenal, and Chelsea in their run towards the Christmas break and questions will be asked of Ole’s ability and capacity to bring in trophies at Old Trafford.

Antonio Conte was a name that was being sung around the potential replacements for Ole at Old Trafford, however, with the sacking of Nuno Esperito Santos, Conte is set to make a return to London and aim to fix what’s been broken for a long time at Spurs. For now, Ole’s job seems secure with a lack of options to replace him, but mid-season is fast approaching, and United are yet to show intent with Chelsea, Liverpool, and City clearly showing their class as the title looks like a 3-way battle for now.

Do you think Manchester United are still title contenders? Let us know in the comments below.

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Main image credits: Embed from Getty Images

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A martial arts enthusiasts as well as practitioner of traditional chinese martial arts. I'm an avid mma fan and love writing. I also love football and have great insight into behavior and psychology of athletes.