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Is Cristiano Ronaldo to blame for United missing out on Champions League spot?

At the age of 36, Ronaldo tied his future to Manchester United at the beginning of last season for two years. But one year in, Ronaldo has now reportedly asked the United board to relinquish their rights to him, should an acceptable offer come in.

Despite his 24 goals last season, the jury is still out on how Cristiano Ronaldo fared at the club. (Photo: AP)

Cristiano Ronaldo is undoubtedly one of the greatest footballers of all time. But in his second coming at Manchester United, he couldn’t prevent the club from being an also-ran in the race for a Champions League spot. While his own contribution is endlessly debated, Ronaldo is said to have put in a transfer request, a move which may force United to rebuild again.

What has Ronaldo’s impact been at Manchester United in his second stint at the club?

At the age of 36, Ronaldo tied his future to Manchester United at the beginning of last season for two years. But one year in, Ronaldo has now reportedly asked the United board to relinquish their rights to him, should an acceptable offer come in. According to various media reports in Britain, the demand for Ronaldo is a Champions League club essentially competing at the later stages. It is a demand borne out of United’s inability to reach Europe’s top-most club competition and a sluggish start to the transfer market for the upcoming season.

Despite his 24 goals last season, the jury is still out on how the Portuguese striker fared at the club. Was he the reason for United not being able to make it to the Champions League? Or was he the lone bright spot in a season full of debacles?


Logic behind signing Ronaldo

For the 16th season running, Ronaldo scored over 20 goals in a season. It’s a commendable statistic but the cost at which it has come is where the real issue lies.

In the 2020-21 season, United were faced with one major criticism – then manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer approving the sale of Romelu Lukaku, without the hope of signing a replacement striker. The role of the frontmen instead landed on the shoulders of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes and Edinson Cavani. United defied every expert’s belief that goals would simply not come as they scored 121 across all competitions – the most they had achieved in the past 14 seasons. As many as 77 of those goals were scored by Fernandes, Rashford, Cavani and Greenwood.

Then, at the beginning of the previous season, United swooped in on Jadon Sancho – adding a key attacker to their line-up and essentially fulfilling their requirement for an attacker for the season.

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Ronaldo’s availability on the transfer market and his almost-move to Manchester City conned United into signing a player they never needed. Ronaldo brings the scent of victory and goals to any club he goes to. But what the club had to forgo in exchange is where United’s true failure in the 2021-22 season lies.


Pressing issues

A young core of attackers who scored a record number of goals was laid aside and suddenly United’s system, based on pressing channels between an opposition’s midfield and defence, became about conceding that space – because their chief striker would not press.

For years now, Ronaldo has scored goals at such a clip that it has never been necessary to ask more of him defensively. But when the number of goals go down from the high 40s to the mid-20s – that defensive effort that has been lacking, takes a toll on the team. Last season for Manchester United, he averaged 6.6 pressures per 90 minutes – putting him way down the list among strikers. An extremely good pressure striker would average 20 pressures per 90 minutes.

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Football in 2022 comes down heavily on teams whose players don’t pressure opposition spaces. Ronaldo’s 24 goals don’t offset the severe lack of pressure he applies on opposition spaces. The lack of pressure converts into time on the ball, which further converts into opposition team shape and possession remaining intact. Time on the ball is the greatest currency a top team can enjoy which Ronaldo afforded the opposition every time.


The goals

It’s well and good that Ronaldo popped up with 24 goals and three assists in his first season back at United, but where those goals came matter as well. Nine of his 18 league goals came in or after March – a time when the battle for a Champions League spot was all but lost. Six of those nine goals came in two hat-tricks against Norwich and Tottenham.

A major reason for United missing out on a Champions League spot was Ronaldo’s mid-season goal drought. As per ESPN Stats and Information, Ronaldo’s goal drought lasted 537 minutes – starting in a 0-1 loss to Wolves on January 3 and ending against Brighton in a 2-0 win. He took 24 shots with 8 on target in this two-month period.

Positioning disaster class

Post Real Madrid, Ronaldo has been to Juventus and Manchester United – two clubs where his primary position and occupation of certain spaces on the pitch has simply caused mayhem among his own.

At Juventus, it was against Alvaro Morata. The Spaniard is a highly intelligent striker who occupies the left side of the field and prefers to cut into his right before taking a shot. Ronaldo, who played as a left winger for most of his life, started to play as a central striker who drifted into the box from the left during his latter years in Madrid, and then at Juventus. Eventually, Morata, who could never match the output of Ronaldo, was forced out of Juventus.

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At United this past season, Ronaldo could be found anywhere in the left or central part of the opposition box – areas which are usually occupied and amply taken advantage of by Rashford and Fernandes.

Rashford, who had 21 goals and 13 assists across all competitions and Fernandes, who had 28 goals and 18 assists last season, simply wilted under the shadow of one of the greatest to ever play the game. Ronaldo swallowed up their spots and his greatness couldn’t replace the 49 goals and 31 assists those two carefully pieced together the previous season.

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A United rebuild, that required a few missing pieces here and there to compete at the topmost level, crumbled as its prodigal son became its biggest undoing. Now with a transfer demand, Ronaldo leaves United with the option of either sticking with him and hoping that the previous season was a one-off, or let the CR7 train leave the Manchester platform and focus on the good that was built in the season before.

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First published on: 04-07-2022 at 08:06 IST
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