Cristiano Ronaldo is almost certain to improve Manchester United but his three seasons at Juventus showed that he is not immune to the players around him.
As good as Juventus were for the first couple of years, they never quite dominated in Europe, which has been a perennial problem for them since their return to Serie A after the calciopoli scandal. One manager after the next has been tasked with turning their domestic domination into continental success. But, ever since their punishment for match-fixing, they have been unable to get the rub of the green in Europe. We can only wonder why precisely this is.
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For Ronaldo, that did not stop him scoring. Playing more than 40 games a season, he delivered 28, 37 then 38 club goals over three campaigns. Brilliant, obviously, but at Real Madrid he was returning more than a goal a game. Those numbers were assisted by spanking European teams in the group stages, something Juve couldn’t quite manage. But even then, his league goalscoring record was more or less a goal a game.
What is hard to parse from statistics alone is how much the drop off in goals came as a result of Juve being a worse team than Real, and the fact that Ronaldo is not quite the talent he was a few years ago. There is a natural decline in his body, and at 36 that will threaten to accelerate. Given the fastidious approach he takes to his health, and examples such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, James Anderson and, until recently, Roger Federer, we know there is plenty to be done to keep an athlete in shape close to his forties. If anyone can surpass those peers, it is Ronaldo.
If we accept, then, that Ronaldo likely remains an excellent striker regardless of his age, that he has one or two more years left at the top level, then what we will see at United is just how much he can do by himself. Juve cast a long shadow over Serie A. Real Madrid were able to overtake Barcelona’s Messi-assisted efforts over the long term. Manchester United have Scott McTominay and Fred.
That is not to disparage the efforts from either of the doble McPivote, but they are clearly the worst team that Ronaldo has played for since either the 2003 vintage United he made his debut for, or the 2003 Sporting Lisbon he briefly turned out for before being hurried away from Portugal.
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Players like McTominay, Fred, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard will get their chance to interact with Ronaldo. The offensively anaemic Aaron Wan-Bissaka will be expected to supply crosses for one of the best headers in football. Luke Shaw’s physique will be compared to Ronaldo’s Rodin. Paul Pogba’s devil-may-care approach will be appraised by one of the most successful players of all time. Even Portugal teammate Bruno Fernandes, who almost always manages to deliver something, somehow, despite his occasional gangliness, is familiar to Ronaldo in a way that might breed contempt.
In some respects, Ronaldo is fortunate. For all the money thrown at players by the Premier League, this is a stratified division with most of the talent still stacked at the top. The bottom half of the league is a doggerel stanza, and there are plenty of weaknesses in almost every team in the top half. There is much to be exploited. However, that goes for his own team, and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seems to be fairly able but far from a tactical sophisticate. It is consensus that United now are title challengers not through any performances as such, but more because they have Ronaldo they have a responsibility to do so.
If United play as they did for much of last season, Ronaldo simply won’t be given the chances to convert. He will be left to flap his arms in dismay at what goes on around him, too old to expend energy on trying to fix everything himself. If that happens, then Ronaldo’s statistics will be at risk. The question is whether the gap between United’s standards and Ronaldo’s can be resolved with more effort from the team or the individual. At Newcastle United they should be given an easy ride as they attempt to find out, but patience will be limited.
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