It’s only nine league games into the 2021/22 campaign and the death knells are already ringing for the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era at Manchester United. The Red Devils have been a shadow of their former selves this season with a team of individuals that are clearly lesser than the sum of their parts, and the wide-eyed optimism of the summer has evaporated into thin air.
United are winless in their last four league games and already find themselves eight points behind table-toppers Chelsea. They have also lost five of their last nine games in all competitions, and each of their previous three victories were games in which they conceded first and required a winner after the 80th minute.
There have been plenty of false dawns and miraculous recoveries in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s two-and-a-half-year reign at Manchester, but the Liverpool humiliation felt like his nadir, with a sense of finality approaching.
However, rewind the clock a few months, and you will realise it didn’t have to be like this.
Manchester United were on the precipice of something special at the start of the 2021/22 season. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had improved United’s league position every year under his helm, finishing 3rd in his first full campaign before pipping Liverpool and Chelsea to 2nd last season.
The Europa League Final loss via penalties was unfortunate, but the progress compared to the latter stages of the Mourinho era was glaring, and Solskjaer was even awarded a shiny new 3-year contract extension in the off-season.
Moreover, sizeable investments were made in key positions in the summer to help United close the gap to City and Liverpool. Following a two-year courtship, Jadon Sancho was brought in from Borussia Dortmund to fix the right-wing creativity problem, and Raphael Varane was added to an already burgeoning defence.
Considering how open the Red Devils looked in the initial few games against Southampton and Wolves, the next step of the puzzle was clearly to sign a central midfielder. However, Ole and United took a different path, which has eventually proven to be their inflexion point.
Cristiano Ronaldo was available, and Manchester United jumped on the opportunity, choosing to prioritize his star power and shirt sales, instead of addressing the more urgent needs in their squad.
View this post on Instagram
Ronaldo is 36, and although his performances can be considered superhuman for someone of his age, the Portuguese forward isn’t just a player that seamlessly slots into a team. He has to be accommodated. It was clear during his spell at Juventus that his goals don’t make up for his defensive deficiencies. Ronaldo scored 27 league goals a season in his three years at Juventus, but their average goal-difference in that spell was +37, compared to +62 in the season before he arrived.
Although there are plenty of other mitigating factors for those numbers, that trend with Ronaldo has continued in his stint with Manchester United so far. Cristiano has scored three goals in six games in the league, but United have conceded 1.9 xG per game since his arrival, compared to an average xG conceded of 1.1 per game last season.
United were a compact defensive side for much of last season, particularly in the big games against other title contenders. Although United opted to sit back and play on the counter in the majority of those matches, the team kept five clean sheets in their six games against Liverpool, City and Chelsea last season.
With Ronaldo in the team, that is no longer a possibility as the Portuguese striker isn’t suited to playing as a centre-forward for a counter-attacking team. However, as seen on Sunday against Liverpool, United struggled to press high and defend on the front foot as well, due to a lack of a cohesive structure without the ball and players like Cristiano who won’t work hard without possession.
View this post on Instagram
Truthfully, a team could afford to sign Ronaldo and live with his lack of defensive capabilities if they are built around the striker, with work-horse-like players who do his running for him. However, with Fernandes, Pogba, Sancho, Greenwood and Rashford in the squad, it is a luxury that this version of the team can’t afford.
Ronaldo can’t be dropped, because he is Ronaldo, and his frustrations and tantrums are already being seen on the pitch less than two months since his arrival. It has been widely reported that Solskjaer preferred a central midfielder such as Eduardo Camavinga or Declan Rice, but those requests were seemingly put on hold to accommodate their prodigal son, to the detriment of the team.
Ronaldo was supposed to be the saviour, instead, he has been the vehicle of their destruction. More of a ticking time bomb than a statement signing, adding extreme expectations and pressure to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s job while simultaneously debilitating the balance and structure of the squad. The signature of the Portuguese superstar was supposed to help Ole bring the glory days back to Old Trafford. Instead, it’s going to cost him his job.
[Image Credit: Cristiano Ronaldo]