Throughout the 2021-22 season, Cristiano Ronaldo was an onion within Manchester United: an integral ingredient that forms the basis of everything thereafter.
The 37-year-old had an impressive individual season, scoring 18 goals in 30 Premier League appearances (and 24 in 38 in all competitions) despite the collective decline of his team. United fans voted him as the club’s player of the month five times, ahead of David de Gea with three and Jadon Sancho with one.
He is United’s player of the season but, despite his goalscoring efforts, he could not salvage the worst Premier League campaign in United’s history.
At the season’s midpoint in January, Ronaldo conducted an interview saying he had not returned to the club to compete for sixth place, and yet that is where United finished in the Premier League.
When his return to United was announced, fans were well aware that they were getting a much different Ronaldo to the player who left in 2009. But the hope was that he would add his experienced penalty-box finishing to what looked like a formidable attacking unit .
“Manchester United 2020-21 + Raphael Varane + Jadon Sancho + Cristiano Ronaldo = a least top four” seemed a sensible calculation, but football has rarely proven to be so straightforward. Players and their teams do not process in a linear fashion, and individuals and structures are capable of regression if standards are not maintained.
The end result was a United team that was much different to what came before, though not necessarily better.
The image below looks at the progression of United’s passing networks from the start of the 2019-20 season to the present day. They show players’ average locations on the pitch. The passes between them are the “connections”. The more players combine while passing, the higher their connection and the thicker the line. The size of each player’s circle reflects how involved they were in possession: the bigger the circle, the higher the involvement.
There have been iterative changes to United’s style of play from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first full season to his departure last November and during the interim reign of Ralf Rangnick. While the fate full-season passing network remained largely the same, there are a number of small things to note that have played a part in United’s decline in this most recent Premier League campaign.
Across all three seasons, David de Gea remained disconnected from United’s passing networks. De Gea was a fine shot-stopper in 2021-22, putting in his best league campaign since 2017-18. But, at a time where Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea’s goalkeepers are becoming more and more integral to their side’s build-up play, the gap between the Spaniard and the rest of his defense is a weakness.
Then there’s Bruno Fernandes – the dot in central attacking midfield. All of United’s attacking play orbited around him in 2020-21 but then he became someone who shared the ball with Ronaldo.
Like many of United’s attackers, Fernandes dropped a little deeper when receiving the ball compared to last season, but it is also noticeable how he is not as connected to the right side of United’s attack. For most of 2020-21, Fernandes would drift right to help the likes of Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James. He lowered the amount of these runs in March 2021 and has continued this throughout 2021-22.
Harry Maguire’s decline in form also led to United missing a progressive outlet from their defense. This, coupled with frequent changes in his right center-back partner, created further issues about how United progressed the ball from one penalty area to another. Look at the lack of line from the right center-back to the right defensive midfielder in the 2021-22 network above.
Another big change is with the defensive midfielders, who both stand narrower and are less connected to the rest of the team. The midfield partnership of Scott McTominay and Fred has been much maligned, but it was a useful building block for Solskjaer’s side over 2020-21. It crumbled this season, though, as injury to both players made them a less viable option for all three of United’s managers: Solskjaer, caretaker Michael Carrick and Rangnick.
McTominay and Fred featured in the same game on 40 occasions across 2020-21. This season it happened only 29 times, many of those as short cameos.
Fernandes aside, Ronaldo’s return has little to do with these changes. He is not “the problem” at United, but his presence in the line-up is indicative of wider issues at the club. His signing was opportunistic and unexpected but it was hoped he would be a luxury ingredient to a nicely simmering and somewhat spicy broth. Instead, he has needed to be a key ingredient – like an onion.
To his credit, the striker has continued to be individually effective, despite his weaknesses in other areas of the game.
In his final season at Juventus, Ronaldo ranked in the bottom two per cent of forwards for effectiveness when pressing. United pressed through with the deal anyway. And Ronaldo did deliver goals, finishing behind only joint-winners Mohamed Salah and Son Heung-min in the Premier League Golden Boot race and scoring vital efforts in the Champions League group stages.
Hat-tricks against Tottenham Hotspur and Norwich at Old Trafford demonstrated his elite goalscoring prowess, yet the question remained. Were the goals Ronaldo scored worth the trade-off? Opinions were varied: Solskjaer appeared happy to have Ronaldo during the early stages of 2021-22. In December, Carrick said it was a “myth” that Ronaldo could not play in a pressing team. In the final week of the season, Rangnick described him as “not a pressing monster”.
As the season progressed, Ronaldo’s lack of pressing almost became shorthand for other collective issues in the team. He was not the only United player who “pressed” without having a noticeable impact on the ball this season. Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Sancho are among others who engaged in naive runs that did little to stop the opposition but instead opened up space that left United vulnerable.
Ronaldo did his job in a season when many other United players were unable to do theirs. He is still capable of turning games on their head through his talent and force of will, but those moments require great focus from himself and dedicated efforts from the team around him.
“Genetically, I feel like I’m 30 years old,” Ronaldo told ESPN in January. “I take great care of my body and my mind. “Something I’ve learned recently is that after 33, I believe the body can deliver if you need it, but the real battle is mental.”
He wants to see if he can play until he is 40, but he is not going to be this good for much longer, and the season had moments where Ronaldo was not good enough to win Premier League games on his own any more.
Even Ronaldo, the greatest goalscorer of all time, could not escape the goalscoring drought that afflicted United during the winter months. If United wish to make the most of him next season they will need to find a way to play with sustained pressure on opponents and deliver balls into spaces where the 37-year-old thrives.
An increase in crosses, to make use of his aerial ability, will be required. Ronaldo will also need a player who can serve as a deputy to him, able to step in should his hip flexor complaint flare up and he cannot be a starting option.
That is a reasonable list of requirements for a striker, but it is a difficult set of requests for a player who will turn 38 next season and will be in the final year of his contract.
Cristiano Ronaldo is still one of the strongest-tasting ingredients in world football today. Erik ten Hag will have to find a workable recipe using him next season.
(Top photo: Ash Donelon / Manchester United via Getty Images)