Manchester United

Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo conundrum beginning to surface at lost Man Utd

Max Cooper
Floored / James Williamson - AMA/GettyImages

Credit where credit is due, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has achieved a feat that no other manager in world football has managed to conjure over the past two decades: He's stopped Cristiano Ronaldo from scoring.

The 36-year-old is on a shock three-game dry spell in front of goal in the Premier League - a fate he never befell during the 2019/20 Serie A campaign, and one he only endured twice last year.

And here we stand, on the brink of an unprecedented four-game barren spell, a pain he hasn't experienced since 2017. So, while Manchester United fans have been left disenchanted by another clueless team performance against Leicester City, their superstar will be apoplectic.

Ronaldo is a serial winner, and success has been the cornerstone of his entire career. A Premier League winner, a La Liga winner, a Serie A winner, a five-time Champions League winner. But the medals have become scarcer in recent years.

He lifted two Serie A titles and one Coppa Italia in three years with the Old Lady, and has now joined a club that hasn't won a trophy since Solskjaer's appointment in March 2019, in the hope of being the spark that relights the Red Devils' fire.

United took that gamble in the summer, much like Juventus did all the way back in 2018, when they seemed inches away from being the finished product, ready to end their long wait for a Champions League trophy.

Ronaldo arrived as the missing piece of the puzzle, but forcing and cramming him into the jigsaw only ended up damaging the pieces surrounding him. Eventually, they were forced to take it all apart and go back to before square one.

Juve supporters initially thrived off screaming "SIUUUUU" after every goal the Portuguese forward tucked away, and when he bagged a classic hat-trick to overturn a 2-0 deficit against Atletico Madrid, the Champions League dream was very much alive.

They fell short on that occasion, and then never came remotely close to European glory. Ronaldo escaped criticism from the outer circle due to his goals and personal statistics, but Bianconeri supporters sensed a flaw to their game plan.

Cristiano Ronaldo
Arms in the air / Jonathan Moscrop/GettyImages

The Juve squad grew weaker every season, as the club struggled to accommodate the eye-watering finances of their €100m transfer and his €30m-a-year salary.

Massimiliano Allegri, Maurizio Sarri and Andrea Pirlo all tried to implement a strategy that could support their clinical poacher, but they just didn't possess the personnel to carry it out. In the end, Ronaldo continued profiting while the fortunes of literally everyone else around him declined, as the forward's individual gain came at the price of a cohesive and well-balanced team.

Allegri and Juve were evidently fine with opting against a second Ronaldo experiment on his return to the dugout this summer, and allowed the disillusioned forward to make his own fairytale return to Old Trafford.

Ronaldo must be wondering then, how the same problem he faced at Juventus has somehow followed him all the way to England and Manchester?! Well, that's because he might just be the problem.

Cristiano Ronaldo
Frustration / FreshFocus/MB Media/GettyImages

The prolific goalscorer has transformed from an influential player to a 'moments' player, popping up in the right place at the right time to tap home a rebound or tuck away a decisive penalty. However, for the other 89 minutes of the game, he offers precious little.

The Bianconeri often looked as if they were playing with 10 men when Ronaldo was shoehorned on the left flank or wandered around in a centre-forward role, and that lack of intensity in the initial press seeped through the entire team.

So far, United have fallen ill with the same symptoms - possibly worse. They simply don't have a game plan that lets him do what he does best, let alone strut around in a huff and chuck his arms up in the air when he doesn't get the ball.

That was painfully clear on Saturday afternoon, when Leicester City outfought and outworked the Red Devils in a 4-2 victory at the King Power Stadium, keeping Ronaldo off the scoresheet and sinking his teammates to their second defeat of the season.

It was particularly interesting to see Jamie Vardy on the other side: a 34-year-old who runs himself into the ground for his teammates, and when that energy is not quite left in his tank, Brendan Rodgers shifts the formation to offer that same impetus with two in attack.

Modern football demands work rate across the board, and the best teams (such as Liverpool) sparkle due to the selfless nature of their front three. They set the tempo for the rest of their teammates, and their sacrifice bears fruit in almost every match.

A shining example of cohesion and unity / PHIL NOBLE/GettyImages

However, United's all-star lineup is much more similar to that of Paris Saint-Germain's troublesome trio of Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar than the Reds. Whether it's Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood or Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford out wide, there is not enough desire for two people to do the running for three.

Edinson Cavani is the Red Devils' hardest worker in attack, but starting the Uruguayan would probably force Ronaldo out to the left wing, meaning the problem is only shifted from the centre to the flank.

What's most concerning, however, is the clear lack of any game plan.

This was a problem under Solskjaer long before Ronaldo returned to Manchester, but the special requirements that a 36-year-old who pretends to have the body of a 26-year-old yet presses and works for his team like a 46-year-old have only highlighted this issue further.

Ronaldo was brought in to make the difference in games which United would typically have drawn 0-0 or 1-1 last year, but with him in the side in this current setup, his colleagues are struggling to even carry him to the point where he can whip off his top and celebrate a 90th minute winner.

It's not entirely the Portuguese forward's fault, nor can we be sure that Solskjaer desperately wanted Ronaldo in the first place, but the writing is on the wall. United need to find a game plan that even Juve struggled to come up with over three years, and the Norwegian boss isn't looking like the man to crack the code.