This was Cristiano Ronaldo’s day. Even before the 36-year-old took to the pitch for his second Manchester United debut, the sight of thousands of fans in ‘Ronaldo 7’ shirts flooding Old Trafford gave a clear indication of the occasion which the man himself marked with a double in a 4-1 win over Newcastle United.
On the basis of the scoreline alone, Ronaldo’s impact was instant. He gave Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s cutting edge and provided the firepower required to make it three wins from four games with United now top of the Premier League table after Tottenham Hotspur’s defeat to Crystal Palace earlier on the same day.
If, however, the benefit of Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United was evident, so too was the detriment. This was another match that largely followed the pattern established over the early part of the season with United lacking control in the centre of the pitch. A better team than Newcastle would have pushed them harder.
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Ronaldo wasn’t the signing United needed in the final few days of the summer transfer window. They needed a midfield anchor more than they needed another attacker, with Solskjaer’s squad now top-heavy. Against limited opponents like Newcastle, Ronaldo might mask this deficiency, but there were still warning signs in the performance.
Javier Manquillo’s equaliser to make it 1-1 at Old Trafford exposed the structural weakness in this United team, with the hosts caught out on the counter attack. It was simply too easy for Newcastle to get out from the back - it was a similar story against Southampton and Wolves.
Solskjaer has demonstrated a willingness to shift his United team into a 4-3-3 formation this season with Nemanja Matic deployed at the base of the midfield against Newcastle. Against Wolves, it was Fred who was asked to protect the back four and start attacking moves from deep.
However, neither Fred nor Matic cover enough ground to make this system work. What’s more, the pair are prone to conceding possession when faced with a high press, something that frequently leaves United high and dry with so many attack-minded players on the pitch.
Of course, this was a problem before Ronaldo secured a surprise return to the Premier League, but with the 36-year-old likely to replace Edinson Cavani in Solskjaer’s favoured XI, United’s deficiencies have been exacerbated further - Ronaldo doesn’t press from the front like Cavani does.
Some United players were also guilty of looking for Ronaldo one too many times against Newcastle. While the Portuguese international has been signed to be an attacking apex, the likes of Mason Greenwood and Jadon Sancho must trust their own instincts in the final third. Solskjaer needs productivity from all of his attackers. Their role mustn’t be to merely provide Ronaldo with five-yard passes into feet no matter his position.
With the points safe and secure after Fernandes’ stunning strike at 3-1, the sight of Solskjaer asking Ronaldo if he wanted to come off hinted at a power shift in the Old Trafford dressing room. Will Solskjaer have the authority to truly control the Portuguese forward? What will happen when Ronaldo, never one to hide his feelings, disagrees with a managerial decision?
Victory over Newcastle United proved what we already knew about this Manchester United team - that they have the firepower to blow away weaker opponents. The signing of Ronaldo, and the immediate impact he has made, will embolden Solskjaer and his players as they plot a title challenge.
But Solskjaer mustn’t ignore the nuances of the performance his team produced. Ronaldo’s signing has strengthened Manchester United, but in an area they were already strong in. Their weaknesses remain the same and Ronaldo might just have added some new ones too.
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24/09/2021 AT 14:45