Cristiano Ronaldo: Are Man Utd helped or hindered by Portugal legend?
Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United this summer has sparked so much excitement among fans – and he’s already scored some important goals – but is the team really better off without him?
In one of the Premier League’s most high-profile signings, the prodigal son, now 36, returned from Juventus this summer – just days after it looked like he would join rivals Manchester City .
But after scoring four goals in his first three games, he’s only scored two in his next six – despite both being late Champions League winners – against Villarreal and Atalanta .
United have changed the way they play to accommodate the five-time Ballon d’Or winner and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is under extreme pressure as his side look further than ever from the top flight after a 5-0 home loss to Liverpool .
Former teammate Leonardo Bonucci believes Juventus were a better team without him and former Liverpool and Scotland captain Graeme Souness doesn’t think he should be an automatic starter at United.
So is Ronaldo helping or hindering United?
What did he do well?
Ronaldo’s three goals in six Premier League games are a perfectly decent comeback – two in his first game against Newcastle and one against West Ham in his second – but, by his high standards, it’s not exceptional.
The last time he finished a league season with a success rate of 50% or less was in 2006-07, his fourth season with United, when he scored 17 goals in 34 games.
This makes him the third top scorer in the Premier League, where Didier Drogba won the Golden Boot with 20.
It’s only a start, but 14 players have scored more Premier League goals than he has this season, including Wolves’ Hwang Hee-chan and Watford’s Ismaila Sarr.
Instead, his main exploits have come in the Champions League – a tournament where he is the all-time leading scorer with 137 goals.
Their last two winners make the difference between United at the top of the group with six points and at the bottom, three points behind the first two.
His six total goals brought his total for Manchester United to 124 while he has 450 goals for Real Madrid, a world record 115 for Portugal, 101 for Juventus and five for Sporting Lisbon.
He plays number nine these days, as he has for many years now – a far cry from the delicate winger that England fans first witnessed when he arrived from Sporting.
For hits in the Premier League, he ranks 216th with 243 but for hits in the opponent’s area, he is 16th with 39.
Ronaldo has the eighth-highest number of shots in the Premier League this season (25), with United team-mates Mason Greenwood and Bruno Fernandes above him. He is joined ninth for shots on target (nine).
“He will score goals and get the crowd excited, but I don’t think he can play every game,” Sky Sports expert Souness said.
“I would take it well, but the conversation has to be ‘you won’t start every game but you will have a big influence over nine months’.”
What about its overall impact?
Well, it’s not the best. His pressing stats, in particular, are striking even though it has never been his game.
In the entire Premier League, only one outfield player – excluding those who have played under 15 minutes – has fewer successful presses than Ronaldo’s 0.74 per 90 minutes this season and he is the defender of ‘Everton Mason Holgate.
According to Statsbomb data on FBREF, Ronaldo ranks 384th for 90-minute presses and 385th for successful presses. Some 429 players, including goalkeepers, have played in the Premier League this season.
By comparison, Edinson Cavani – who played 26 times in the Premier League for United last season as a forward – averaged 3.86 successful presses every 90 minutes.
ESPN writer Mark Ogden told BBC Radio 5 Live: “What has changed this season is Ronaldo. They have a guy up front who doesn’t do a lot of work.
“Cavani handles everything. He handles the lost causes, he gets the crowd and his teammates moving. If Ronaldo is not there, United are more of a team unit.”
BBC Sport expert Micah Richards said: “If you bring in Ronaldo what’s the style of play? Where’s the balance? Of course you will have Ronaldo [if he’s available]. Put people behind him who will do his job. “
Ronaldo has only won possession three times in opposition, third in the Premier League this season – and has played 48 assists in his own half.
In general passing as well, he is far down the list – 208th with 169 (143 wins) with 195 players having completed more than his two dribbles.
How has he changed United’s game overall?
There are several notable differences in the way United are playing this season: they are more straightforward; they put more crosses; and they support less.
“He can [legitimately] claim he was the best footballer of all time, but in terms of him making Manchester United a better team? No, “Souness said after Liverpool’s loss.
Ronaldo won Serie A in his first two seasons with Juventus, but last year they just finished in the top four, ending their nine-year reign as champions.
Juve defender Bonucci said: “Last year the team played for him. Now the squad have to rediscover that spirit of Juve that was there before he arrived.”
Former United midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger told BBC Radio 5 Live: “I agree with Leonardo Bonucci that Juventus have improved without Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Wherever Ronaldo goes he is the main goal, but if you watched Juventus before he went they played as a team and in eleven.”
United are seventh in the Premier League with 14 points after nine games, eight ahead of leaders Chelsea.
Last season they were 16 points at this point – but ninth because most of the other teams had played an extra game.
But they were supposed to be better this season after signing French defender Raphael Varane from Real Madrid, England winger Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund and Ronaldo.
The Red Devils have enjoyed the same Champions League start as last time around – leading their group with six points in three games.
There are notable differences in the way they play this season and how Ronaldo has changed their game.
United have made a lot more crosses this season than last – with Ronaldo deemed good in the air.
They’ve gone from 17th last season to seventh this campaign in terms of open play centers. The average per game was 11.2 in 2020-2021 and it has now risen to 14.2.
Despite this, Ronaldo has yet to have a lead effort in the Premier League this season – although his Champions League winner against Atalanta was with his header.
United are worse this season in rush streaks – a measure of how quickly they are pressing forward. They finished second of 20 teams last season, but are seventh this time around.
They went from eighth to 12th on opposing passes allowed by defensive action, meaning they got worse at the rate at which they interrupt opponents’ passing moves.
And in a significant change, United are attacking faster this season than last.
They lead the Premier League standings for how far a team advances in a move – and have dropped from seventh to second when it comes to how far a team starts a move in open play.
Solskjaer’s team also improved in direct attacks and direct speed.
Former England striker Karen Carney doesn’t think their style of play has changed too much.
“They tried to change the way they played [in recent times] – it’s not just about Ronaldo. United have a good away record due to their low block and counterattack, “she said.
Souness added: “They have a problem because they can’t play like Ole wants to play. They can’t be the top team that the best teams are because if a person doesn’t commit to the press, people can come out.
“He won’t give you that, so they’ll have to be a different brand of football – which Ole doesn’t really want to play.”
United have covered more ground than their opponents in just one of the six games Ronaldo has played in the Premier League since his return – but that was also true for two of the three games before he started.
There is no doubt that Ronaldo has changed Manchester United this season and, as Solskjaer, under pressure, reflects on how he can change form, the Norwegian could analyze these stats and wonder if the return icon has made it his team better or worse.