Cristiano Ronaldo clearly had a point to prove as he scored a hat trick (the 59th hat trick of his career) in Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Tottenham Hotspur. Criticised for missing his team’s chastening Manchester derby defeat the week before, the 37-year-old was back to his brilliant best.
Ronaldo’s hat trick against Spurs lifted his goals tally for the 2021/22 season to 18. The Portuguese international is Manchester United’s top scorer and is the joint-second top scorer in the Premier League this season – only Mohamed Salah has scored more. And yet Ronaldo is a growing problem at Old Trafford.
As a finisher, Ronaldo remains one of the best in the sport. However, United made sacrifices to fit him into their team and some argue this has weakened them as a unit. In particular, Ronaldo’s inability or unwillingness to press from the front has been widely identified as an issue, especially since the appointment of Ralf Rangnick, a proactive coach who likes his forwards to press high.
This season, Ronaldo has averaged just 7.39 pressures per 90 minutes – this places him in the first percentile of Premier League forwards. He might still be an elite level finisher at 37, but Ronaldo offers very little else to the structure of the team. A well-built, coherent team could support Ronaldo, but United’s problems are only accentuating the flaws of their number seven.
In contrast, Edinson Cavani is in the 88th percentile for successful pressures (5.3 per 90 minutes). Manchester United made the Uruguayan its first-choice centre forward for much of last season and, unlike Ronaldo, masked a lot of the structural issues behind him through his individual energy and mobility.
Cavani and Ronaldo have a combined age of over 70. Both players should have been short-term solutions for Manchester United, but the Old Trafford outfit have become more dependent on them than ever should have been the case. Cavani is expected to leave at the end of the season when his contract expires, but Ronaldo still has another year on his deal left to run. Can United handle another season of accommodating him?
Ronaldo has reportedly asked Rangnick to give him a strike partner, but this would risk even greater structural instability through the rest of the team. Instead, the interim Manchester United manager has asked Jadon Sancho to play closer to Ronaldo. Sancho has the mobility to maintain width on the left and also cut inside to link up with Ronaldo.
“He made the difference for sure, but not only for the three goals,” Rangnick said after Ronaldo’s hat trick in the win over Tottenham. “That was the best performance from him, at least since I arrived here, on and off the ball. It’s a challenge with a player like him. He showed that he is physically able to do that, but we also have to admit he has not always been like that the past couple of weeks and months.”
The Champions League has brought the best out of Ronaldo this season with the 37-year-old netting six times in as many appearances. If he is to still achieve success with Manchester United in his second stint at the club, it could be in this competition. Tuesday’s round of 16 second leg against Atletico Madrid could be a watershed.
Against Atletico Madrid, Ronaldo has been a menace all the way through his career. The Portuguese has scored a staggering 25 goals in 35 games against Atletico including four hat tricks. Ronaldo has beaten the Spanish capital club in two Champions League finals. Another victory over them would highlight Manchester United’s and Ronaldo’s potential to go far in the competition.
A defeat and elimination, however, would once again raise familiar questions about their union. Speculation is already swirling that Ronaldo could be on his way out of United at the end of the season with the Portuguese unhappy at the direction of the club.
Paris Saint-Germain have been mentioned as potential suitors with Bayern Munich and Roma also believed to be monitoring Ronaldo’s situation.
United find themselves with a difficult decision to make. If Ronaldo were any lesser of a player, he would surely be earmarked for a departure this summer. However, the 37-year-old still has the ability to win matches on his own, as he essentially did against Tottenham Hotspur. If Manchester United can somehow find a system that harnesses Ronaldo, but not at the expense of others around him, they should keep him.
The return of Ronaldo to Old Trafford last summer was meant to represent the culmination of Manchester United’s recovery as a force at the elite level. Instead, it has exposed just how far they have still to go. Ronaldo might be a problem, but his hat trick against Spurs shows there could still be a solution.