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Manchester United Have a Cristiano Ronaldo Problem

The club legend’s return was supposed to catapult United back to Premier League glory. Instead, United are floundering. Where did it all go wrong?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One of the go-to devices for dramatists seeking to access the inner life of their protagonists is the psychotherapy or counseling scene. Think Tony Soprano (“I’m a miserable prick. I’ve said this since day one.”), Jesse Pinkman’s drug rehab in Breaking Bad, or the Roys’ hilarious attempt at family therapy in Succession. How would a similar mise-en-scène look at Manchester United right now, say in one of those All or Nothing Amazon Prime documentaries (in which the fly on the wall is usually a corporate PR strategist)?

It is said that the first step to recovery—institutional or individual—is to identify and acknowledge the problem, so what, exactly, might that be for the listing red ship of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Season 4? Where are the breaches, the blind spots, the festering corporate malfeasance? How has a team that came second in last season’s Premier League and then added one of the world’s best and most decorated center backs, one of its most promising young wingers, and one of the greatest strikers in history imploded so badly? Who, to use the footballese, is going to hold their hands up?

The obvious candidate is, of course, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, although for the Norwegian to admit that United’s dismal recent run—four points from the past six Premier League games and effectively out of the title race before Halloween, alongside four nervy, unconvincing Champions League performances—is the consequence of poor coaching and/or tactics is tantamount to accepting that he has taken the team as far as he can and, in comparison to Thomas Tuchel, Pep Guardiola, and Jürgen Klopp, the managers at United’s notional rivals, he is a notch or two below the required level.

This season, as the promise of those summer recruits has given way to stuttering, shambolic displays, Solskjaer has cut an increasingly forlorn and pathetic figure, eyes glazed over in the dugout, seemingly unable to have an in-game impact from the technical area, generally carrying the air of a competent departmental middle manager overpromoted after four straight Employee of the Month awards and now overwhelmed by having to handle, metaphorically speaking, the swinging executive dicks.

In many ways, his appointment always seemed a curious one. Scorer of the club’s most famous goal, he was essentially a Fergie-era vibes man, a return to the club’s mythic attacking “DNA” after the sterility of Louis van Gaal’s possession game and the tactical and psychological siege mentality under José Mourinho—a fundamentally likable and decent figure who would thus provide an antidote to the toxicity of the decaying isotope of the Portuguese’s ego.

Initially, as caretaker, he did well, picking up 32 Premier League points from his first 12 games while overseeing a Champions League last-16 heist against PSG, at which point, with the feel-good nostalgia flowing liberally, he was handed a three-year contract (since extended). It was a gallery-pleasing rush of corporate blood to the head, perhaps, when it may have been prudent to have waited until the end of the season. United promptly picked up eight points from the final nine games to slide back to sixth.

The following year, there were again 66 points, only this time it was enough for a third-place finish, along with three cup semifinal appearances. Progress, then, which continued into last season: 74 points and second place, although there was a disappointing group-stage Champions League exit followed by Europa League final defeat. Ole’s at the wheel. The wheels have come off. So what’s happened? What’s changed?

Again, the most obvious answer is the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo—apparently with the 11th-hour intervention of Sir Alex, appalled that he might join the “noisy neighbours”—which has changed not only the identity of the team, such as it was, but also, perhaps, the dressing-room dynamic, compromising the authority of the captain and manager. Not that you would expect Ronaldo to see this, to acknowledge that he may be as much a problem as a solution. (When the therapist asks the similarly alpha, similarly waning Logan Roy whether he has “considered the possibility that your children are scared of you,” the answer he gets is “Fuck off!”)

Add an all-time footballing great, a megastar, and a United icon to an improving team, the logic went, and what could possibly go wrong? The replica shirts were duly sold (after another veteran striker generously gave up his shirt number) and the congregation flocked for The Return. The general air of messianism surrounding Ronaldo’s second debut was best captured by Peter Drury’s gushing commentary, both for his entry to the arena and the narrative-fluffing goals against lowly Newcastle. Pundits hailed the positive example this most devoted of self-improvers would have on the young pups in the squad, as though it needed Noam Chomsky to explain that swerving discos and kebabs on a Friday might be beneficial. Sure, they were bound to pick up some goal-scoring craft on the training pitches at Carrington, yet the chief example might end up being that the amount of running you’re required to do is inversely proportional to the number of goals you score.

Ah, the goals, the great red herring in all of this, like Donald Trump repudiating global warming after a cold snap. Yes, Cristiano has scored goals—some excellent ones, some crucial ones. In the Champions League, there was the opener against Young Boys before it all went south and, after being hooked as 10-man United tried to protect what they had, he started coaching from the technical area, unthinkable under Ferguson or, indeed, Mourinho. Next came the 95th-minute winner at home to Villarreal, a game in which United were pummeled, then the 81st-minute winner against Atalanta at home, rescuing United from an 0-2 halftime deficit (a simulacrum of a rousing Fergie-era comeback that had Solskjaer lauding the DNA while sage pundits wondered what would happen when they met a top-level team, the answer being a 5-0 evisceration by Liverpool). Finally, there was the brilliant point-saving brace in Bergamo, capped by a stunning injury-time volley that may just have saved United’s season.

In the Premier League, meanwhile, he followed the Newcastle goals with another in a narrow win at West Ham. Since then, there has been just one goal in this run of six, season-derailing games. There have also been signs of prima donna petulance, a glowering march straight down the tunnel after the home draw with Everton, for which he was initially left on the bench (which drew a remark from Ferguson, still casting a mighty shadow over things at Old Trafford), as well as rash tackles on Curtis Jones and Kevin De Bruyne in the Old Trafford humiliations meted out by United’s two biggest rivals, both of which might have drawn red cards.

Is this the example the United punditariat were purring about when Ronaldo re-signed? Or might it be his patrician lack of running—particularly in the defensive phase? Ronaldo’s 5.14 pressures per 90 minutes is the lowest of any forward in the league. In the attacking third, that figure is 2.36—again the lowest of any forward (by way of comparison, Timo Werner’s figure is 11.9).

Last season, United were fifth in the division in attacking-third pressures per 90 minutes; this season, they sit 16th, while making the fewest tackles of any team. So, is Cristiano carrying United or are United carrying Cristiano? At the risk of blasphemy, would they be better off without him, going instead with the ego-free industry of Edinson Cavani rotating with the young legs of Mason Greenwood at center forward?

Superficially the savior Ronaldo may actually be the primary cause of deep structural flaws that have afflicted United’s progress. And that’s before we get to how his hyperreal presence—part-human, part-icon, one-man media-industrial complex—affects the authority of Solskjaer, let alone the on-field organizers like captain Harry Maguire (so commanding for England at the Euros, so calamitous over the past month) and those manning the under-resourced department at the back of midfield, the maligned trio of Nemanja Matic and “McFred” (Scott McTominay and Fred). With the greatest respect for the Scottish capacity for volleys of industrial language—“going radge” in the local idiom—it’s difficult to imagine McTominay telling the Portuguese godhead to “drop in and do your fucking job.” What, after all, can be said to CR7?

The common thread here is recruitment, both playing (Did Solskjaer even want Ronaldo?) and managerial (Do the players have faith in Solskjaer and his staff?). Ed Woodward, due to leave the CEO post at the end of the year, may be the king of the noodle and mattress partnerships, but there seems little big-picture logic in the post-Ferguson managerial appointments, nor, indeed, in the stockpiling of top-class creative options, seemingly without consideration for tactical balance. The failure to extract more from a squad containing Ronaldo, Greenwood, Cavani, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Donny van de Beek, and Jesse Lingard might be considered an indictment of Solskjaer’s coaching, but would a new manager immediately improve United? Could a new boss be the tough guy unafraid to bench stars, like new Spurs manager Antonio Conte, or a details man such as Tuchel?

On the evidence of last season, when Tuchel switched almost overnight to a 3-4-3 and led Chelsea to Champions League glory, the answer would appear to be yes, with the caveat that he had few gigantic egos to finesse and better footballers to play the double-pivot: Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic, and N’Golo Kanté. Solskjaer himself has switched to a back three in recent weeks—seven defenders or defensive-minded players on the pitch of course meaning fewer places for that star-studded cast of creators—bringing victory over Spurs and timid defeat to Manchester City in the league. In Europe, the first-half injury to Raphaël Varane at Atalanta saw an immediate reversion to 4-2-3-1, none of which smacks of tactical coherence or faith in the game plan.

A manager’s most basic task is to impose an identity on a team. In effect, this means inculcating an understanding of dynamic structure: where to run, when, and why, both with and without the ball, engendering attacking automatisms and system goals, triggers for pressing and an intuitive grasp of when to drop into a bloc. It’s an elaborate system of cues that give the appearance of spontaneity.

There has been scant evidence of this during Solskjaer’s tenure, particularly at Old Trafford (just 27 of 55 home Premier League matches won), where that inability to impose a joined-up playing style means a team unable to impose itself on inferior opponents defending deep and counterattacking. This season in particular, United have looked incoherent in both attacking and defensive phases, too easy to play through, too reliant on individual brilliance, a hot mess of players jumping from the defensive line, wingers running down blind alleys, midfielders looking up for nonexistent runners, creators ambling to close down space.

There are many problems, then, starting with the deep and longstanding disenchantment with the ownership, through the haphazard recruitment, to coaching and tactics and, perhaps, the basic determination of players to bust a gut. With upcoming games at a rebooted Watford and lordly Chelsea followed by the visits of an improving Arsenal and impressive Crystal Palace, things could yet get worse for supporters still reckoning with the unceremonious popping of those early-season expectations. What are the solutions? How do United staunch the flow of blood?

In the medium-term, it perhaps means replacing Solskjaer with a proven elite coach, one whose post-match reflections offer more than the Norwegian’s bromides, which suggest that all that time learning from Sir Alex while sat on the United bench has provided no real insight, only a sort of superficial grasp of the United DNA akin to magical thinking. It also means acquiring a top-class defensive midfielder, someone with the defensive savvy, passing range, and organizational attributes of, say, Declan Rice, then recalibrating the team accordingly.

In the short term, before crisis turns into collapse, they must identify a way of playing, a new equilibrium that recognizes their current strengths and weaknesses: namely, that Ronaldo, politically impossible to drop, remains a supreme penalty box operator, that his lack of running precludes a pressing game, and that selecting seven defensive-minded players is not maximizing the squad’s strengths.

Tough decisions must be made over players unlikely to fit this blueprint (to which recruitment must be rigorously aligned), either now or in a year or two’s time. Despite his excellence as a one-on-one defender, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, for instance, is hopelessly limited on the ball; throw in some headless defensive decision-making of late and he becomes a liability.

Given that a 4-3-3 with Bruno and Pogba as a double-eight cannot work without forwards who press, Solskjaer has two viable options. He can persist with the back three in a 3-4-3 (or 3-4-1-2, depending on whether Bruno plays as a roving no. 10 or notionally as a wide forward), which would allow a double-six of Pogba plus-one in a way that a 4-2-3-1 doesn’t. To do this, however, United must improve the output from the right wingback—a position from which Reece James has 1.38 goals and assists per 90 this season, second only to Mo Salah—which may mean playing Sancho there in the short term, with extra defensive cover provided by using McTominay to the right of midfield pairing. This is clearly suboptimal for Sancho, but is the only plausible way to accommodate United’s three virtuoso players: Ronaldo, Pogba, and Bruno, comfortably United’s top performer prior to his compatriot’s arrival.

Alternatively, the best option may well be to play 4-1-4-1, with McTominay at the back of midfield, wingers who will run hard and cover their full backs in the manner of Sadio Mané or Gabriel Jesus, and a double-10 behind Ronaldo that will press judiciously and drop into midfield when necessary. There is no feasible way in which this double-10 can be Pogba and Bruno, though. In which case, Solskjaer should bite the bullet, jettison the Frenchman—who has flattered to deceive at Old Trafford (regardless of his five assists in the two opening games)—and play a link man who runs alongside Bruno (currently ranked first in the league for shot-creating actions and key passes). The best candidates being the unfashionable Lingard or the unwanted van de Beek.

Ultimately, though, it is less about positions than decisions, an understanding of the role of the parts in relation to the whole, a willingness to do dirty, selfless work. Failure to turn the tide quickly, and they will all soon need therapy.

Scott Oliver is a British writer covering sports and the intersection of culture and politics. He has written for The Guardian, Vice, ESPN, i-D, and New Statesman, among others.