You’d think if you were going to take on the burden of bringing back a twice-accused rapist to your club, the hierarchy would have to be pretty sure that it would make a huge difference on the field. But you’re not the Glazer family, who are so desperate to get Manchester United fans to stop burning them in effigy for five minutes that they’re capable of just about anything. Which includes bringing back Cristiano Ronaldo, even though it doesn’t solve their biggest problems and could well cause a few more. That rational thought or hope also ignores that most United supporters, like just about any other fandom on the planet, aren’t going to give a flying fuck about any “baggage” that Ronalo carries as he returns to where he first achieved global fame. Global fame which has allowed him to slough off Kathryn Mayorga’s accusations and lawsuit and dodge any legal charges as well.
He might not find it as easy to bunker down from these things in Manchester as he did in Turin, where Juventus were only too happy to shield him from any investigation or inquiry. Whether United will go to such lengths is an open question. Certainly it’s unlikely that the club will see less shirt sales than they would anticipate, given the way these things work, and that’s where a major chunk of the club’s concerns lie. Ronaldo hasn’t stepped foot on US soil since the second batch of allegations, and United will assuredly make a preseason US tour something of a priority when (if) COVID isn’t ever present in our lives to make up for profits lost the past year and a half. Will Ronaldo join them? It’ll make little difference to their bottom line if he does or doesn’t. It’ll just make for some awkward questions that everyone will have to answer or, more likely, not answer. Sadly, and again, all of this pales alongside the benefits the Glazers see from this transfer. There are certainly sections of United’s support that are uneasy, if not angry, about all this, but just not nearly enough.
So there’s that. On the field, what questions Ronaldo answers is another unknown. United weren’t lacking for an aging, barely mobile goal-poacher whose only contribution was to finish off chances others created. They already had one in fact in Edinson Cavani. And Cavani, just two years younger than Ronaldo, was far more effective in other facets. He joined in build-up play, he provided assists, and he actually thought about pressuring the ball when United didn’t have it.
Ronaldo doesn’t do all that anymore. There was a time when he was an all-action forward and could give you more than just goals. That time is gone. In fact, Ronaldo is one of the worst pressing forwards in world football of late, ranking in the 1st percentile in pressing among forwards (courtesy FBREF.com). Ronaldo provided just two assists last year, the lowest mark of his career. And that wasn’t a fluke or a result of his teammates’ wayward finishing, as his expected numbers match up with that figure. Ronaldo’s shot-creating actions were also the lowest of his career last season. The amount of touches Ronaldo took in the final third was also way down. Basically, he does not get involved until it’s time to shoot, which he’s still only too happy to do.
Goals weren’t really a problem for United last year, as they scored the second-most in the league last year with 73. And they added Jadon Sancho, who creates and scores about as well as any wide forward in the game, especially given his age (21). Maybe United think Ronaldo will convert more of those chances than Cavani or Anthony Martial, but the difference is likely to just be on the margins.
And without the ball, it could be a real problem. Ronaldo isn’t going to press anyone, and Marcus Rashford (when he returns to health) isn’t a big-time presser of the ball either. Oh, and neither is Sancho, which means that United’s real problem—a midfield that can be absolutely torn through thanks to a lack of quality defensive mids—could get even more exposed. Just yesterday, United had only Wolves’ lack of finishing to thank for escaping with a 1-0 win, as they waltzed through midfield with the ball whenever they felt like it. Sheer talent will see United through against a lot of teams, but when they come up against teams that can play their own game against them in the league and in Europe, they could find lots of raiding hordes bearing down on their goal. And while Ole Gunnar Solskjær has kept everyone happy and gotten just enough results, he’s not going to come up with some tactical plan to counter all of this.
In addition, Ronaldo might totally neuter Bruno Fernandes, United’s best player by miles the past season and a half since he arrived. Fernandes can forget about taking any freekicks or penalties again, and he won’t really find Ronaldo making that many runs for the through balls he can usually conjure. Neither will Paul Pogba, and he’s also sometimes an unwilling runner without the ball, opening up that runway to United’s defense they’ve yet to close. We got something of a look at how Fernandes and Ronaldo dovetail at the Euros with Portugal. Fernandes had no goals, no assists, 0.1 expected goals, 0.1 expected assists, and four shots, one on target, over four matches (two starts). Fernandes doesn’t want or need an obelisk in front of him, but that’s what he’s going to get. Ronaldo these days profits more from crosses and passes from out wide, which isn’t where Fernandes is.
Ronaldo will assuredly bang home enough gimmes and penalties and a few others to justify the headlines as long as no one is looking at anything under the hood. But then again, Ronaldo has spent the past few years thriving on people’s lack of desire to look under the surface. Why should this be any different?