You can’t teach an old GOAT new tricks – Solskjaer’s Ronaldo unravel, what might have been, and what can be.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Cristiano Ronaldo signing is the major watershed moment – after which, the defensive floodgates opened, the points dried up, and tears were ultimately shed.
While the CR7 signing might have been the catalyst for the collapse, it’s important to understand that Ronaldo himself is certainly not to blame. The fault has to lie with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for thinking he could fit Ronaldo into the same, or similar, system. You can’t teach an old GOAT new tricks.
The Norwegian manager did ultimately fall because of tactics, but not because he’s not a good tactician. I will die on the hill that his original tactical plan(s) for Manchester United were good enough to overhaul the likes of City and Liverpool over the next couple of seasons. A body of work across the last two seasons hints strongly at that, but with Ronaldo it all unravelled.
Yes, United were 12 points behind in May, but they were missing huge pieces of the tactical puzzle, and still improved. The centre of midfield was obviously below the standard of rival teams; the attack clearly lacked a right-sided player; the centre-back position was shallow; the goalkeeper was only just rediscovering form, and the defending of set-pieces was atrocious.
It might not feel like it from what we’ve witnessed this season, but the defensive pieces that Solskjaer already had in place were not a problem. Despite David de Gea often being out of form, Solskjaer’s defensive structure (reliant on Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, and Shaw) conceded the fewest open-play goals in the 2019-20 Premier League season, and the second fewest in 2020-21.
Altogether, United only conceded 4 more league goals than City from open-play across Solskjaer’s two full seasons. They did however concede 12 more from corners and free-kicks. Even when Liverpool won the league – with Van Dijk and Alisson earning rave reviews – United conceded 3 fewer goals from open-play than the champions. But, they conceded 4 more from corners and free-kicks.
Solskjaer not only recognised the weakness of the team, but acknowledged his own weakness, by adding specialist set-piece coach, Eric Ramsay, to the staff ahead of this season. It may also be possible Solskjaer planned to give more playing time to United’s most commanding goalkeeper, Dean Henderson, but that never materialised as a result of COVID-19, injury, and the subsequent form of De Gea.
Even with confidence shot to pieces, and new coaching methods still being refined, the result of Ramsay’s involvement this season has seen just 0.2 goals conceded per game from free-kicks and corners. Last season it was 0.37 – not far off twice as many. Solving the huge set-piece problem, combined with the pre-Ronaldo defensive structure, and adding Raphael Varane for quality and depth, should have helped close the gap considerably.
On the offensive end, while true in the early days, it’s somewhat of a myth that United were a counter-attacking team, bad at breaking down low-blocks. Last season, United’s record against teams finishing in the bottom-half of the Premier League was 15 wins, 3 draws, and 2 defeats.
One of those defeats was the opening weekend loss to Palace when they hadn’t been allowed a pre-season (and it showed, badly). One of the draws was against Fulham in the second to last league game, when players clearly didn’t want to overexert themselves ahead of the Europa League final. Remove those two games and it’s 47 points out of a possible 54. But, as Michael Carrick suggested on Sunday, negative narratives often stick, especially when it’s Manchester United. Once such a narrative is established, it’s easy for any dissenter to pick one or two games and say ‘I told you so’ – the truth is in the full body of work.
Many will say, “what about the Europa League final?” Even without the cornerstone of the defence, Maguire, United allowed just one shot-on-target. It was a set-piece. It went in, of course. The attack that day wasn’t good enough, but Villareal are very solid, and, there are always isolated examples.
Still, Jadon Sancho’s signing should have made United even more capable of breaching a defensive barricade. Using the same offensive structures, the gap on title rivals should have been closed even further.
Not only was the record good, and becoming better, against bottom-half sides, but Solskjaer had a positive record against “top tacticians” throughout his time in charge. His combined record against Guardiola, Klopp, Mourinho, Tuchel, Pochettino, Nagelsmann, Ancelotti and Sarri prior to Ronaldo was 13 wins, 9 draws, & 8 defeats.
Solskjaer’s tactics had taken United to 3rd and 2nd in season’s they were widely predicted by the media to finish 5th and 4th. If Sancho, Varane, and Ramsay wasn’t enough to fully bridge the gap, a top quality midfielder would surely have finished the job next year.
That is why, after the 5-0 defeat to Liverpool, Solskjaer said, “we’re too close to give up now”. I know exactly why he felt like that – because he was close.
Solskjaer’s rebuild was not ready for a deviation
Opportunistic signings can be a positive, and I still believed Ronaldo’s return would help United. The Portuguese was a complete bonus, seemingly approved outside the transfer budget – the club happy that revenue increases would cover costs, be it from merchandise or commercial deals. He was not in place of a midfielder.
In that regard, he was a relative free – a free for the owners, for the manager, and for the fans. Added depth of immense quality, experience, and mentality, for free. It was the common consensus that Ronaldo would lift the team – the morale, the training levels, the intensity, the dieting, the attitude – and still offer plenty himself on the pitch. Not only that, but if Ronaldo didn’t come to United, he was likely to go to City, and therefore very likely to lift a major trophy or two (or three, or four…) in a sky blue shirt. That would have been an unthinkable, and painful, PR disaster. United took away from a rival, and added world class depth, for nothing.
I am adamant that Manchester United have a plan, have learnt from past mistakes, and have been moving predominantly in the right direction ever since Solskjaer first communicated his ideas to the hierarchy towards the end of 2018. Ronaldo has been the one deviation from the masterplan – his quality, reputation, and history at the club, making him the one path too irresistible.
Quite literally, for no other player on the planet would Solskjaer and United have swerved off course. Any other signing, whether successful or not, would have at the very least fit the system. A unique set of circumstances dictated that this was a move all parties felt they simply couldn’t not make (double negative by design!). Ronaldo’s mere availability was the flutter of a butterfly’s wing that changed the trajectory of Solskjaer’s United.
That the club is poorly run is another of those negative narratives that while once true, is no more. It’s easy for cynics to suggest Ronaldo was only a commercial signing. He wasn’t. He was a signing that made everyone happy – those caring about revenue streams, the coaches, the players, and the vast majority of fans. A win all-round, or so it seemed. Instead, it happened to be the one major event the coaches weren’t well planned for.
Bar this unprecedented audible call for Ronaldo, major decisions made by United under Solskjaer have fit the philosophy. The majority have been well-planned, with a view to the long-term. Contrary to the majority, I don’t believe United were negligent in not signing a midfielder in the summer, if the original plan was being adhered to. I’ll explain below. But, if you are tactically ready to add Ronaldo, the fulcrum of a top-class deep midfielder should already be in place. Likewise, Dan James becomes exponentially more important – not saleable. If you’re not tactically prepared, the dominos can start to fall.
Three priority positions were identified last season – a centre-back, a central-midfielder, and a right-winger. An economical rotational right-back might also squeeze within the budget. A striker would wait until 2022, when Edinson Cavani would depart. Still, it was always highly unlikely United would sanction quality first team additions in all three of those priority positions in one summer.
Simply put, if Sancho and Varane are available at exceptional value to fill two of those three priority positions, you do it – for the quality it brings now; for the potential it brings in the future, and because midfield options are slim or overpriced. Do remember, there was a clamouring from United fans to sign Saul Niguez, who has only started twice in the league, and been withdrawn at half-time on both occasions. Fans and pundits rarely know the full picture.
By successfully filling those two priority positions with guaranteed game-changers, midfield and striker then became the priorities next year – when preferred options become more available, and the wage bill may have been significantly streamlined in that department by the departure of Pogba.
United’s existing midfield isn’t elite, but it was still good enough for back-to-back top-three finishes (when, crucially, it was far less exposed). On top of that, the other planned additions should have made the team stronger in three major areas – defence (Varane), attack (Sancho), and set-pieces (Ramsay).
In public and on the training ground, the message needed to be that United were going to be challengers. In the management structure, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was, and still is, an understanding that a league title is unlikely until the midfield is addressed next year. Privately, reducing the gap would have been enough for Solskjaer to go again with a team that would be more-or-less complete next season.
The Norwegian had helped the hierarchy understand that United were attempting to overhaul two of the best Premier League teams ever. Over the last four seasons, City and Liverpool have produced the four highest points tallies in competition history. This wasn’t like trying to sneak a title pre-Pep & Klopp. Structure, academy, and first team, needed to be rebuilt, methodically – major piece after major piece over several years. “I’m buying electric cars” was the quote from Solskjaer, but nobody connected to United could resist an all-time classic.
Solskaer had adapted ‘plan A’ well on many occasions, particularly in his first season and a half – playing a back three, split forwards with a diamond midfield (as Carrick resurrected at Chelsea), counter-attacks with a deep block, but also sometimes front-foot pressing (a couple of memorable wins against Tottenham come to mind). But, what he couldn’t do – or at least couldn’t do quick enough – was solve the conundrum of having Ronaldo in one of those structures.
To play Solskjaer’s football, Ronaldo needed to be any of:
(a) a starter against lesser teams.
(b) an attacking substitution when Utd needed a goal.
(c) part of a new system that accommodated his game.
Yes, he scored lots of goals under Solskjaer, but look at when they came – two against Newcastle, and one against Young Boys (games that fit option ‘a’). Four late winners or equalisers when United were chasing games against Villareal and Atalanta (situations that could have been covered by option ‘b’). And, in a different system against Spurs (option ‘c’). The only game he started and scored in that doesn’t fit ‘a’, ‘b’, or ‘c’, was the win at West Ham.
By starting just about every game in Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1, the goals came for Ronaldo, but the team as a whole suffered. This is not a unique problem. Last season, Ronaldo led the Serie A scoring charts with 29 goals in 33 games. Juventus finished in 4th, 13 points adrift of champions Inter, and several Italian football experts identified the issue.
As Carrick suggested on Sunday, and contrary to common opinion, United have been set up to push high for the majority of Solskjaer’s tenure – albeit relying on the counter-attack early on, and in select big games across the last two seasons.
United’s press hasn’t been great, but it has at least largely retained a structure, and ultimately been more advantageous than disadvantageous. Now, if you take a press that’s just about good enough, and replace one player in that structure with someone who’s historically been one of the worst pressing forwards in Europe’s big leagues, the whole thing can collapse like a house of cards.
The midfield (which we know isn’t of elite level) and the defence (the left side of which has been playing exhausted and injured since the Euros) don’t just become more exposed, they also have to deal with defensive situations on a far more frequent basis.
More defending, and more exposed defending, then leads to a higher probability of individual errors, and, as a further consequence, to a lowering of confidence. That mental knock-on effect then amplifies all of the issues – players start to doubt their own decision-making, followed by the structure and coaching methods as a whole. The intense state of focus and belief that often separates elite sportspeople starts to crack.
In 2019-20, United conceded just 0.6 goals-a-game from open-play in the Premier League – fewer than any other team. Last season, just 0.7 – only bettered by City. With Ronaldo in the side, it’s been roughly three times those figures. Of course many of those conceded goals haven’t been as a direct result of Ronaldo not pressing, but most are a result of all of the knock-on effects. The Ronaldo ripple.
Had Ronaldo gone to City, I imagine he’d have been more of a rotational option. The negative impact he can have on a defensive structure would also have been far less damaging, because City have midfielders who keep the ball better than most. If you’re attacking, you’re not defending. Hence, United needed a top-class deep midfielder in order to be tactically ready for Ronaldo.
Instead, Ronaldo’s inclusion amplifies the other issues, because he doesn’t fit what’s already there. A Cavani, for example, would help hide defensive frailties. Issues in midfield and defence are still issues, but it’s about whether the team is tactically structured to deal with those issues. For the most part, United covered the midfield deficiencies pretty well the last two seasons. Cavani down the centre is like firing foam onto the fire. Martial is like water. Greenwood like air. Ronaldo like fuel.
Ronaldo is a goal-scoring machine, but still doesn’t fit stylistically into the successful systems that Solskjaer put together over the previous two years. Ole’s teams always linked attacks pretty well through a mobile centre-forward good at hold-up play (Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood, and then Cavani last season).
It’s a part of Martial’s game that is hugely underrated and unrecognised – he’s arguably the best of United’s forwards in this regard. Cavani is good, as is Greenwood, who should also get better with experience and conditioning in that position. Ronaldo is below all of them in this aspect only – he tends to stay more on the fringes until he has a chance to shoot; run forward with the ball; or pick it up in the left half-space (where he and Marcus Rashford both want to do similar things). Not linking the same way Martial, Greenwood, and Cavani do, then impacts chance creation, and how the other forwards play.
On top of that, United have been set-up for the majority of Solskjaer’s tenure to attack low cut-backs into the box (playing with Martial, Greenwood, and also Rashford at centre-forward). They have tended to dribble or interlink play into the box, which is why they’ve won so many penalties. While Ronaldo can certainly take part in that, he’s taken time to develop an understanding with others, and also relies more on high crosses than the rest.
Then, if the manager decides to play on the counter, Ronaldo is also not the quickest option to make long runs in-behind, or to carry the ball a long distance. Even at 36, he’s certainly not bad, but he’s not as quick as Rashford, Greenwood, and Sancho. Carrick’s decision to leave him on the bench against Chelsea a prime example.
With Cavani you have the perfect mix of pressing, link-play, and finishing. With Greenwood you have the link-play, pace, movement, and finishing. With Martial you have the link-up and finishing potential – in Solskjaer’s first full season he had the best conversion rate in the Premier League. In short, they at least fit either the offensive or defensive systems, be it possession or counter-attacking.
With Ronaldo, you through it all out the window. He’ll finish chances to an elite level, but United won’t create as many, and defensively they’ll be far more open. Thierry Henry recently summed it up best by saying, “when your medicine is your poison”, you’re in trouble. The consequence of that is the confidence, fragility, and decision-making of the whole team is negatively impacted.
A potential further ripple is that some players, and maybe even some coaches, will feel Ronaldo is undroppable. Other players, noticing the issues, will possibly be fuming that he’s still in the side (even if they keep their emotions inside). Ronaldo’s presence has/will help to keep Sancho, Cavani (when fit), and even Donny Van de Beek out of the side.
If Ronaldo doesn’t start, Cavani does, or Greenwood plays down the centre, with Sancho on the right. If Sancho plays on the right, Van de Beek likely plays more as a 10, or advanced 8. The balance of the offence, defence, and squad has been impacted. Any players growing unhappy with those dynamics may then lose further confidence in the coaching.
As has been reported in other publications, it may well be that a new viable plan existed, but the results of any work were clearly not translating to game-day quick enough. While that delay was occurring, the players were clearly losing belief and confidence. When players lose belief in the coach and his ideas, it usually only goes one way.
The coach might get one final roll of the dice to rekindle the fire. For Solskjaer, that could have happened in the win at Tottenham – playing Cavani alongside Ronaldo, with three at the back. But, when Cavani gets injured, the new structure gets stretched, and the next league opponents are Liverpool and Manchester City, the dying embers of that belief inevitably burn out.
Solskjaer also had a similar, but less impactful, tactical issue at the opposite end of the pitch. David de Gea – another of the club’s biggest names and most talented players – is not the type of sweeper keeper ideally suited to a pressing team, or a team playing with a high line. Just as you need forwards who press, or at least retain out-of-possession structure, you need a keeper who comes off his line.
You need round pegs in round holes. Pep Guardiola ditching Joe Hart for a sequence of keepers able to sweep and play out, and often sacrificing Sergio Aguero for Gabriel Jesus, is a pertinent example of how the players ideally should fit the system.
Dean Henderson may not be the big name, but per-90 minutes last season produced more than three times as many ‘defensive actions outside the penalty area’ as De Gea. Henderson also had significantly better average numbers at passing out, claiming crosses (which would further help at set-pieces), and even stopping shots. The sample size wasn’t exactly small either – he played 26 games in all competitions.
On that note, De Gea’s save percentage is actually the fifth lowest in the Premier League this season, despite playing well. A result of facing frequent high-quality shots, with structure and confidence having collapsed – a more distant ripple of dropping Ronaldo into the side. A few spectacular saves, just like a few spectacular goals, shouldn’t come above the tactical plan. It will be interesting to see what Ralf Rangnick does in both departments.
The end of the Ole era, not the end of the project
There remains a major misunderstanding of the job Solskjaer did at Utd. The immense work behind the scenes to rejuvenate the academy; alter the structure; revamp the recruitment processes; negotiate better ins and out (both in terms of permanent deals and the loan system), and enhance the sports science department, will serve United well for years to come.
Solskjaer changed the whole mind-set of the club, putting a plan in place for the future. The old structure would have jumped on Antonio Conte, given him huge sums of money to build half a new team, and the cycle would have started again. The new structure built a meaningful relationship with Rangnick over a couple of years, and will now ensure the same club-led philosophy and scouting systems are followed. That recruitment includes succession planning for individual positions, which will accelerate when Matic/Pogba/Lingard/Mata contracts run their course. A midfield will arrive in 2022. It was always going to.
While rebuilding the club, the squad, and dramatically lowering the average age, Solskjaer achieved better and more consistent Premier League finishes than top tacticians Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho – doing so with football that was endlessly more entertaining.
You simply don’t do that, or set an all-time English top-flight unbeaten away run; or become just the third ever English top-flight team to go unbeaten away from home for a full season; or tie a Premier League record of 10 come-from-behind wins in a single season, without being a good tactician.
Were the tactics perfect? no. But would they ultimately have been good enough had Solskjaer stuck to his plan? We’ll never know. Will they be better under Rangnick? I’d expect so, but will remain cautiously optimistic, not underestimating the value of man-management skills – Solskjaer has those to an elite level. It remains to be seen how individuals will react to Ralf. It is feasible United players gain in one area, and lose out in another. Still, given the Ronaldo conundrum, you’d back the tactical gain at this junction.
Solskjaer’s work has pointed, not just the team, but the club in the right direction. They expected bumps along the road – the latest big enough to throw Ole out of the car, but there’s a very capable driver set to grab the wheel. For many other men, that one big CR7 sized “what if” might keep them up at night for years to come. In Solskjaer’s case, I imagine he’ll sleep peacefully at night knowing his beloved club is still on the right road.
For many fans, while the opportunity for the Solskjaer fairy-tale is gone, the club and its players can continue to grow. For Ronaldo, the man who first learnt to be the man at United, may now have to learn how not to be the man at United.
Still, nobody would bet against Cristiano being the difference-maker. Either in the short term, if Rangnick can find the right system to accommodate him. Or, in the long term, if his influence gets an extra 10% out of the most talented group of young players the club has raised since the Class of ’92.
Maybe an old GOAT can teach some new tricks.