It’s been a terrible season for Manchester United so far. The team have been lacklustre across all fronts, both domestically and in Europe. The dressing room is reportedly a disaster, club legend Gary Neville has said publicly that there are players leaking information to the press and the fans have certainly turned on a handful of the players. It is pretty difficult, then, to find positives amongst the turmoil, but it would be incredibly unfair to not mention the contributions of club legend Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese attacker returned to Manchester United with an enormous amount of fanfare and has been one of the only bright points of a wretched season at the club. At 37 years old the attacker has found the net 22 times in just 36 games and so many of those goals were key to Manchester United having any success at all this season.
Despite Ronaldo’s goals, United have suffered this season with Ole Gunnar Solskjær sacked and interim replacement Ralf Ragnick struggling to get anything more out of the squad. The Red Devils need a new direction and they have recruited one of Europe’s most promising managers to make that change. Ajax boss Erik Ten Hag will take charge of United prior to the beginning of the 2022-2023 season. The Dutchman has had incredible success at AFC Ajax where he has amassed many domestic trophies, but most impressively had put Ajax back on the map when it comes to European football. Ten Hag was the mastermind behind the young Ajax side that reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League for the first time since 1997 and also the man who rebuilt Ajax after many of the key players in that side were sold. He achieved all of this by playing a dominant high-intensity style of football that has fans and pundits wondering how he will handle having Cristiano Ronaldo at his disposal.
The key concern about Ronaldo under Ten Hag seems to be that the Portuguese striker is simply not mobile enough out of possession to fit in under the system the Dutchman will want to implement. While it is true that the Ajax coach will want to play a more aggressive style of football than United currently it isn’t necessarily true that this will significantly impact Ronaldo.
Erik Ten Hag has primarily used two strikers during his time as Ajax’s head coach. These were Dušan Tadić initially and now Sébastien Haller. Neither of these players was known for their defensive movement, pressing or, pace prior to being used by Ten Hag. More to the point, they are still not known for those things today. Tadić is a clever attacking playmaker who added goals to his game, while Haller is a modern athletic target man that scores through clever movement in the opponents’ box and being dominant in the air. Although Ajax are a pressing side, they rarely find themselves in a position where they are pinned back in their own half. Like most successful pressing sides, the vast majority of the pressing comes in the opponent’s final third. Instead, Ten Hag’s sides dominate the game and press most when the opposition has the ball inside and around their own area. The four furthest forward players press the opposition players, with the least mobile of them cutting passing lines and taking up a position to shoot should the other pressing players win back possession. Having hard-working players with intelligent off-the-ball movement allowed both Haller and Tadić to fit seamlessly into a system that on paper might not have suited them.
One of the best ways to show this is by comparing Cristiano Ronaldo’s defensive contributions to those of Tadić and Haller. The metrics we will look at are pressures, tackles, and interceptions per 90 minutes. Ronaldo isn’t a player that contributes defensively often. This year he has averaged 7.13 pressures, 0.5 tackles, and 0.1 interceptions per 90 minutes played. These are low and that cannot be denied, but when we look at Haller and Tadić things become more illuminating. Sébastien Haller has averaged 16.87 pressures, 0.27 tackles, and 0.13 interceptions per 90 minutes played, while Dusan Tadić has averaged 13.43 pressures, 1.00 tackles and 1.00 interceptions per 90 minutes played. The clear difference on paper is that both current Ajax players produce more pressure per 90 minutes than Cristiano does currently. In both tackles and interceptions, Ronaldo is comparable. The gap in pressing is notable, but 13-16 presses per 90 minutes are not huge numbers. Attackers in a side that press high and often regularly post pressing stats that far exceed these numbers. For comparison, a player who presses often is Liverpool’s Diogo Jota, who averages almost 24 presses per 90 minutes. Ronaldo will never be a pressing attacker like Diogo Jota, but his low pressing stats are not solely down to his own play style. Rather, those stats are artificially deflated as a function of Manchester United’s approach this season.
Manchester United ranks 16th in the Premier League for presses in the opposition’s third of the pitch. They also rank similarly for pressing in their own half. The directive at Man Unite is clearly not to press. Aside from this, the other attackers used by United this season, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood, both rank low in presses this season compared to all other forwards in the league. Simply put when Ronaldo isn’t in the team, they don’t become much more of a pressing side. Rather, Manchester United have been more of a counter-attacking side this season, looking to sit deep and attack quickly after winning back possession. All of this will change under Erik Ten Hag and this will likely benefit Ronaldo, who is at his best in teams that dominate the game rather than play passive football.
It can be argued that many aspects of Ten Hag’s playing style will benefit Cristiano Ronaldo. His side will look to dominate possession, something that Manchester United don’t often do. This means there will be less need for defensive movement off the ball than there is currently. His side will also look to play cleaver short passing reminiscent of tika-tika rather than trying to hit hopeful balls out wide to the wide players. Ajax plays with lots of width and this is a key feature of their game. They look to create lots of shooting opportunities by getting lots of crosses into the box where Haller dominates. This is exactly what a 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo thrives on. Clever movement in the box along with being elite in the air means that Ronaldo should score plenty of goals in a Ten Hag system.
Perhaps Ronaldo will ultimately leave United under Erik Ten Hag, but it is wrong to assume that in his first season they will not be successful together. Is Ronaldo a tailor-made fit for the Dutchman’s playing style? Definitely not. But he is far from the square peg in a round hole that many are predicting. Manchester United have far greater problems around the pitch to solve they think of replacing arguably the greatest goalscorer of all time.