Manchester United’s Premier League title chances certainly improved when it signed Cristiano Ronaldo from Italian club Juventus Aug. 31, but the Portuguese megastar may not be enough to separate the Red Devils from the pack.
Ronaldo continues to be, without a doubt, a world-class marksman. In three full seasons with Juventus, he scored 101 goals in 134 appearances and earned the Italian Serie A’s Capocannoniere, or top scorer, award for the 2020-21 season. At 36, he shows no signs of regression; he recently became the all-time top goalscorer for men’s international soccer after scoring against Ireland in UEFA World Cup Qualifying.
Goalscoring notwithstanding, Ronaldo fits awkwardly into United’s system. In recent seasons, he has scaled back his defensive work rate to maintain his offensive output, so he often plays as one of two strikers; the second striker picks up Ronaldo’s slack on defense. United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær, on the other hand, lives by the 4-2-3-1 formation with only one striker.
Solskjær will either have to accept Ronaldo’s defensive downfalls as a lone striker, or he’ll have to tinker with his favored formation, adding a second striker to accommodate his best player. In both scenarios, Solskjær risks creating a one-dimensional offense centered around Ronaldo, which would diminish the roles of midfielders Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba, the focal points of United’s 2020-21 offense.
Even if Solskjær does change the formation, presumably to a 4-4-2, he must decide whether to have Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford or Mason Greenwood start as the second striker alongside Ronaldo or whether to deploy Bruno Fernandes, who is usually an attacking midfielder, as a deep-lying center forward.
Solskjær used two defensive midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 throughout all of last season. In a 4-4-2, Solskjær must decide whether to keep two defensive midfielders, which would sacrifice playmaking in the midfield, or employ only one defensive midfielder alongside a more creative midfielder like Pogba or Fernandes.
Clearly, Ronaldo’s place in the squad leads to more questions than answers. Similarly, United’s other new signings inject quality into the squad but fail to fill the team’s positional needs.
English winger Jadon Sancho, who transferred from German club Borussia Dortmund in July, gives Solskjær an extra jolt of creativity and pace in the attacking third, and the 21-year-old should link up well with midfielders Fernandes and Pogba. French center back Raphaël Varane, acquired from Spanish giant Real Madrid in August, is a stalwart stopper and strengthens a United defense that conceded the 5th-fewest goals in the PL last season.
But even with all its new transfers, United failed to address a major deficiency in its lineup: the defensive midfield role. Over the past few seasons, tenacious, disruptive defensive midfielders like Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson, Manchester City’s Rodrigo Cascante and Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté have been indispensable to their teams’ respective Premier League championship runs. United still lacks such a player.
In United’s first three PL matches, the Norwegian manager rotated between Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matić and Pogba in the defensive midfield role. Few players are better than Pogba on his best day, but the Frenchman is much more comfortable as an attacking midfielder, threading passes to his forwards, than as a defensive midfielder, extinguishing opposition attacks. Fred, McTominay and Matić are serviceable in the position, but they lack offensive spunk and, with the exception of McTominay, are below-average defenders.
United should finish the season in the top four, but only when the team effectively plugs its positional holes will it be able to best the other realistic title challengers like Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool.
At the highest level, every team has tremendous talent; even the smallest advantages among teams make all the difference. In many categories, United trails behind. In terms of best manager, Solskjær is outmatched by City’s Pep Guardiola, Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp and Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel. In terms of squad depth, United still lags behind City and Chelsea.
The red half of Manchester is now the home of the best player in the PL — and, arguably, the world — but its efforts will not be enough to prevent the inevitable “It’s our year!” chants by United fans from ringing hollow once again.
Christian Baldari is a sophomore in the College. Beware the Hype appears online and in print every other week.