Invariably, where there is an Olympics, there is a new state of the art stadium to host the shining spectacle. A city with a great wondrous stadia in it, one that invariably stands out like a sore thumb as time passes. One only has to search Olympics and White Elephants to see the remarkable trend of these once great arenas being reduced to abandoned spaces of non-use. London tried to create legacy plan but it hasn’t worked in the way that was envisaged in the plan.
Incredible amounts are invested into these things so why exactly do governments fight tooth and nail to host something that will leave you facilities that are going to be unused and eventually looking decrepit? Well, the chance to paint the country in a positive light is one that they see as impossible to miss. A show of strength to the rest of the world that they are an emerging power to be reckoned with or an old power that is going to reawaken.
The latter of that can be seen in the shocking last minute move of Cristiano Ronaldo back to the Theatre of Dreams, as Man Utd has become something of a white elephant itself. Both in the bricks and mortar of Old Trafford and its success domestically and continentally. The Portuguese superstar’s story is well read. From Lisbon to Manchester to Madrid to Turin. The middle of these trips taken are where his best stories lay. As empathically stated in his Instagram post, the story at Madrid has been ended. There is still some words to be written in the Manchester where both he and the club can be lifted.
But the fairy tale story is not how it always ends in reality. With the outlay, the backstory, the intentions behind the deal, it is ever easy for United to let Ronaldo, 18 years after he burst onto the scene on this very stage, to turn into the white elephant that so often plagues these plans of showcasing power. The problem is that there is legacy to protect, rather than one to build. So what is the best way in which that the Red Devils don’t succumb to this?
The Evolution of Ronaldo
The progression of Ronaldo from the wiry livewire of a winger to the powering goalscoring forward within Carrington’s walls are well trodden. What he has gone onto do since then to his reintegration into the Manchester United team though will provide some context to what is the best utilisation for him in this squad.
He scored goals. A lot of them. Goals that could only be matched, closely or exceeded, by the adversary he faced in Spain. A goal a game was common for Cristiano. However, where he looked his best, the rest facilitated for these goalscoring feats along with creative hubs. The Real Madrid team that won 4 Champions Leagues composition shows such. It included Xabi Alonso, Angel Di Maria, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Isco and Karim Benzema. The only one who would be considered not falling into these two categories is Gareth Bale, an inside forward more in the ilk of Ronaldo.
Even in his years under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson, the team was moulded as such that facilitators and creators would be surrounded around the burgeoning netting forward. Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez were an effervescent combination of creativity and work rate. They were able to cover for the Scotsman’s penchant to allow Ronaldo to slack off with defensive work. With Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Nani, Anderson just some of the names to be called upon, the creativity wasn’t lacking.
So it seems that Ronaldo likes to be surrounded around those that are dissimilar to his current style of play. Because even as the aforementioned team did set up in a way to help him score, he still had parts of flair and audacity that brought the crowd to its feet. In a journey to ultimate efficiency, this was beaten out a long time ago. Age has only lessened the capability further. He is 36 years old now. Already being in the penalty box rather than arriving in the penalty box is more his calling these days. As fit as he has kept himself, he was always going to be prone to the effects of aging.
A common dampener put on Ronaldo is the fact he dims the light of those around him. He may increase their indirect contributions but his gravity means their direct ones suffer. One can only look at the Rooney and Benzema’s numbers once he left the respective clubs. The feeling amongst many is that Pablo Dybala suffered the same plight, even if his goalscoring was never truly of a significant standard and he has always been more of a second striker anyway. In fact, he was always seen in more of the facilitating mould so his ill-fit with Ronaldo came more as a surprise than anything.
During his peak years at Madrid, and even towards the latter years at United, such was Ronaldo’s influence, coaches would often play asymmetric, fluid systems. Ancelotti was the most obvious. A man who is not wedded to one formation or style of play, the 4-3-3 with the ball would be a 4-4-2 without the ball. Ronaldo and the left central midfielder, Di Maria, were the focus of changing it.
Ronaldo would go into a central slot next to Benzema, with the Argentine winger going into a wider role if the team had conceded possession. Often considered the easiest shape to defend in, the same is thought of the 4-3-3 being the easiest shape to attack in. Spaces between the lines are more naturally taken up by players, except for the number 10 role. It’s exacavation means movement into these spaces by one of the two 8s, the wingers or even the striker can add additional fluidity.
Benzema, the ever complete forward, would frequently drop into these spaces. This left space for Ronaldo to run into, being on the end of crosses or through balls from Madrid’s ever creative hub that was their midfield. Not as needed under Jose Mourinho given they had Mesut Ozil in a 4-2-3-1 but Florentino Perez’s Galactico obsessed mind meant he would sell the German to satiate his need to buy Bale. In effect, Ancelotti’s system was a way of fitting in both Bale and Ronaldo with compromising the team structure.
Ancelotti’s demise and Rafael Benitez’s short stay, the 4-0 defeat against Barcelona soon before he would be given his marching orders, came from the sale of Di Maria and Alonso plus the injury issues of Luka Modric in the 2014/15 season. Kroos was less suited defensively in a two, especially with the Croat next to him, and James Rodriguez moving from the 10 on the ball to a left winger off it was harder as he did not have the same work ethic to do the dog work in the wide areas.
Zinedine Zidane came in as a short term replacement but would have a wondrous effect. He immediately saw the importance to include a proper defensive midfielder behind Kroos and Modric. One that had been in the Castilla and out on loan at Porto in previous years. Casemiro. The Brazilian being parachuted into the team by Zidane shows the irony given how much the Frenchman wizard chastised the loss of Claude Makelele. He was the engine to complement the gold layer Madrid had up top. We will circle back to this later.
Even if initially Bale played perhaps his best football during the 15/16 run to Champions League glory, afterwards he and Zidane would not see eye to eye. Isco would eventually take on the right wing role in most of the important games. The dexterous, cloud footed, creative Spaniard would drift into those aforementioned spaces in the hole. The right back, quite often in the shape of Carvajal, would race outside of him to sustain the width. The shape would look like something you would see of a diamond whilst a team attacked, Benzema taking up the right sided striker slot as Ronaldo would take the left side with Isco playing within zone 14. It would see the team triumph in Europe in the two years after, with a League title in the middle to complement the 2016/17 European trophy.
His time at Juventus however was not in a machine as well oiled. 3 different coaches were there during Ronaldo’s time. Massimiliano Allegri, Maurizio Sarri in his second and Andrea Pirlo in what would be the former Sporting Lisbon graduate’s last season in the black and white of Turin. The sweetest relationship he shared was with the former, who came back to repair the damage of the latter two. Sarri’s method of coaching was adverse to Ronaldo at the stage of the career he reached. Pirlo’s immaturity of management shone through as he navigated Juventus from perennial winners of the Italian crown to scraping into the Champions League qualification.
The New Build?
So, it’s up to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to find a way to drop Ronaldo into an attack that is both its team’s greatest strength but also it’s greatest source of debate. Since he came in some 2 years and 9 months ago, alike most teams, the good times have often flowed when the attack have been on song. Whether it be the initial 4-3-3 with a striker or false nine or the 4-4-2 diamond in his time as interim. The 4-2-3-1 during lockdown that had Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford behind Anthony Martial. As of last season, it seemed to be that the Norwegian manager settled on replacing Edinson Cavani, replacing the waning Frenchman up top, and Paul Pogba shifting into a wide position that would displace Mason Greenwood regularly.
The season has begun and the same problems that affronted the Red Devils last season are still there for everyone to see. While the Leeds romp on the first day was met with the deserved fanfare, the Yorkshire rivals’ philosophy plays into United’s best assets. The game against Southampton and Wolves were performances that spoke of a lack of evolution. The passing was as stodgy and unimaginative as ever when building from the back against a low block. The front line looked more like a collection of individuals rather than a team. Jadon Sancho’s integration into the team has been slow due to illness so he has only had one start with two substitute appearances. All of which have been quiet, to say the least.
The midfield continues to be a problem. As Zidane said, without the engine, putting a golden layer on the Bentley means you having a very nice looking car in your garage. Fred and Scott McTominay, whilst having the energy to get about the pitch, are not good enough on the ball hold down the almost impeachable spots they do in the United XI. Nemanja Matic shows his age with every passing game. Pogba, through both his and Ole’s wants, is used less and less in the middle of the pitch. He has no problem doing so with France but then again, with their wide collection of defensively sound midfielders who can also play football, makes that easier. Needless to say, United do not have that.
The addition of Rapahel Varane hopefully means that the midfield becomes less about protecting those behind and more about serving those ahead. Unfortunately, despite reports of a move to a 4-3-3 that Solskajer employed in his earliest times at United, the 4-2-3-1 looks here to stay. Aaron Wan Bissaka has his pluses but going forward and building within the middle third is not one of them. The increasing influence of full backs in the game mean creativity is seen as their job more than it is midfielders these days. Luke Shaw has grown into a full back seemingly capable of doing both sides while Maguire’s ability to carry out the ball and take it past players will also help. Still air dropping Ronaldo into this team as a fix it all is both improper and potentially even more unbalancing.
Diamonds from Pressure
What is the best way to fit Ronaldo into the team then? Because, after seeing the exploits of Portugal, a debate already rages on how Bruno can be negatively impacted by his compatriot. Fernandes, whilst incredibly important to the team’s style and integral to getting numbers on the board, is incredibly risky with his passing and general play. Ronaldo already takes as much opportunity to influence the game by being as risky but with his shooting. Both are not huge contributors in building or facilitating the play. Having two of those in one team can be overkill. Would Bruno have to lessen his madness in order to make it work? Time will see.
But even in spite of that, we have to look at the others who will be put in around Ronaldo. It is unlikely that he will be from the left. A 7 on his back but a 9 in his play. He wont be stationing himself in wide positions to eventually maraud the space that would be intentionally left for him. He’d be making shorter runs, something that will be kind to his older legs. But he is not the traditional lone number 9.
His back to goal play, despite his physique, is not the best nor is his link up play. Strangely enough, it is common for him to seek out the ball when it is not regularly entering the opponent’s defensive third. As much as he now strives for efficacy over aesthetics, he is still the technically gifted starlet that burst onto the scene against Bolton at heart.
Even discounting the age factor, Ronaldo has never been much of a presser. It’s wasting energy that could be better saved for putting the ball in the back of the net. Yet, one of the hallmarks of Solskjaer’s philosophy is that he wants United to be a pressing team. One must match the running output of the opponents before beginning to impose themselves on the ball. It is why he went with younger players and his steadfast support of the McFred pivot, who are a ball of energy themselves, speaks to that. How would his team press when, in effect, they will be down to 10 men off the ball with the Portuguese forward? Rooney even suggested recently that the others would have to work that extra bit harder off the ball.
A team without great ball progression, middling crossing prowess and who lean more on brute force attacking than combination play does not look like a good fit for Ronaldo. Sancho, alike Isco, prefers coming in off the line when on the right. Wan Bissaka won’t provide threatening width to cover for this fact though. Bruno’s positioning higher up the pitch, almost like a second striker, might actually be helpful for Ronaldo. It is much maligned because he is expected to be a 10 and pick it up through the lines but a close partner to Ronaldo will be helpful. It’ll put more pressure on the middle of the pitch, the weakest part of the pitch.
Based on summer signings and Ole’s clear favourites, once injuries have cleared up, Sancho on the right, Bruno as a 10 and Rashford on the left with Ronaldo through the middle is what many would predict. Rashford and Bruno’s weaknesses are similar to what Ronaldo has right now. Dribbling, passing and shooting are their game changers respectively so they do so to a point where they turnover the ball a fair bit. With United’s ball retention problems already, it is adding to the problem and a heavy burden on Sancho to carry. That’s not even thinking of the combination as the two that would supplement the two.
Assymetry in build up might be the best answer. Tucking in Wan Bissaka to place as an almost centre back to help with recovery runs on the counter like Kyle Walker does for Man City and England would allow for better protection at the back for Shaw to feel more comfortable in getting higher and wider as early as possible. Having Bruno in the right half space, where he likes to cross from, with Sancho as the widest option on the right. Rashford in the inside left space to run beyond Ronaldo would give the defence different dangers to focus on.
This is just one way. Another could be like Real Madrid done with Ronaldo or France did with their World Cup win. A central midfielder acting like a winger or winger acting like a central midfielder. Pogba’s role the past 10 months have resembled this closely. Martial up top, as a facilitatory striker like Benzema might be complementary too. How Cavani and Greenwood fit into this hasn’t even been considered yet. It really is an embarrassment of riches for Solskjaer to work with.
But, that is a pothole for a manager. With heightened resources, the expectations raise to reflect them. You can only Frank Lampard about that. Balancing depth within a certain is both a hard task, tactically and man management wise. It is a long season so there will be plenty of chances for each player to establish themselves but difficult decisions will have to be made. Ronaldo will surely be exempt from this so the supporting cast is where the real battle lays.
What will the legacy be?
It is not just one stadium that is built for Olympics. The one that hosts the athletics will always be the shining star and often, a lot of care is put into maintaining it. It is the other stadia, for the cycling and swimming, that can become the disused stories of the past. Ronaldo has been accused of making the supporting cast lessen themselves too much to make himself shine but when you score at the rate he does, you can see why managers and players are willing to do it.
The stands sang Viva Ronaldo as he sported the red of Man Utd and his legacy here will live on forever. With the money invested and the fact that United now sit at that crossroads where they push on to actual win things or let this era be known as the perennial bridesmaids, it is important that this iteration of Manchester United’s Ronaldo is not made into the white elephants we have come used to seeing once the Olympics leaves for another city. Solskjaer has to make sure he has enough in his managerial Arsenal to paint a beautiful story for both himself and Cristiano Ronaldo.