Have Manchester United finally found the correct way to use Cristiano Ronaldo?

It has been the topic on everyone’s lips. It seems as though the arrival of Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo, an entity, a footballing force of nature has consistently been cause for debate as to whether the Manchester United team he signed for has become a detriment as a result of his acquisition.

I think even with Ronaldo’s hubristic nature, he himself would agree that it hasn’t exactly played out the way he’s wanted with him and United staring down the brink of missing out on Champions League football, as well as not having any chance of silverware come the end of the season.

It seems a lifetime ago that United boasted of a versatile, thriving attack that had fans licking their lips at the various weapons in their arsenal and the seemingly endless list of possibilities.

As of April 2022, circumstances have rapidly changed with Ronaldo looking like United’s only recognised forward who is consistently available (Cavani) or not woefully out of form (Rashford). Debate has raged on at his pressing or lack of pressing statistics, and whether having a 37-year-old lead the line is the best way for United to build a team around or conduct attacks despite his extremely respectable goal numbers on his return.

Gaining any player and immediately including them in the first eleven for a string of games without proper research and thought into how he will mold into the team is unwise, but it feels like that’s exactly what Manchester United did.

There have certainly been glimpses, memorable moments Ronaldo has provided since his return. United would’ve never made it out of the group stage if it wasn’t for his consistent heroic acts in his beloved Champions League competition. The Brighton, Norwich and Tottenham Hotspur performances are all symbiotic that Ronaldo can still offer plenty. United in typically sloppy fashion just don’t fully know how to accommodate him, nor does Ronaldo know the best way to maximise his services.

Incoming manager Erik ten Hag could certainly look to the Arsenal game, even though it ended in a loss, as a possible blueprint of how to utilise the aging striker. In one of his best performances since his return, Ronaldo gave an extraordinary performance considering the tragic circumstances of losing his baby boy days before.

This season when Ronaldo has dropped deep to link-up in build-up he normally gets a few touches of the ball and the move slows down, however against Arsenal his link-up play was extremely fruitful rather than pointless. After back-heeling to Fernandes and receiving once again, he is wary of Elanga’s run in behind on Nuno Tavares and releases him so Elanga has a one on one situation that he spurns.

Ronaldo used the fact that Gabriel stuck to him, dragging him out of position but then looking for the quick pass in behind releasing either Elanga or Sancho. As opposed to dropping deep to link up then jogging towards the center-forward position.

As the ball is fizzed into him from the resulting throw Gabriel is attempting to steal the ball off Ronaldo who is immediately looking for Sancho’s run.

The pace at which Ronaldo was ready to release the forwards was impressive there was no dilly-dallying on the ball. One does wonder, with Cedric Soares and Nuno Tavares on either wing, if Rangnick and the forwards had worked on this in training as it seemed very formulated, or it could also just be the fact that United’s wingers are starting to realise they must occupy the defensive line when Ronaldo has dropped out of the forward position to collect the ball in the half-spaces.

Below you can see Ronaldo even pointing to Elanga to run in behind before he has received the ball

It’s one touch to control it and one touch to pass it through which brings Elanga clear on goal again before he is nudged off the ball by Tavares and the penalty shout is waved away by the referee.

With Chelsea looming as the next fixture who have struggled with a list of injuries to full-backs all season (Loftus-Cheek played as a RWB vs West Ham) it may be another chance to employ this tactic with Ronaldo as a key cog

Whether it was a carefully orchestrated plan to make use of Arsenal not having their normal full-backs, instinctive chemistry between the wingers and Ronaldo or the hope that the United attack may finally be getting to use to each other it is certainly an aspect for Erik ten Hag to build on and United to make use of Ronaldo next season.

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