Cristiano Ronaldo has returned to Manchester United 4,445 days after he initially left for Real Madrid in a then world record £80m move.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner has enjoyed a trophy-laden 12 years away from Old Trafford, hoarding domestic titles, international silverware and European medals aplenty in that time. Not to mention individual accolades, of which he is something of a connoisseur, monopolising plenty of awards during his career.
His reunion with the Red Devils comes at a time where stability has only just re-established itself after a chaotic existence post-Sir Alex Ferguson. His arrival could hence prove the catalyst in the club’s efforts to rediscover those halcyon days under the esteemed Glaswegian.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has meticulously crafted an enterprising, youthful squad, capable of breaking the recent Man City-Liverpool hegemony in the Premier League, but how will Ronaldo’s arrival affect his starting XI? We’ve come up with three potential line-ups the Norwegian could play.
The ‘Classic Ole’
This one is no shock, really. Solskjaer has long been wedded to a 4-2-3-1 system with inverted wingers dovetailing a centre forward. Last season (see graphic below for Man Utd’s most-used XI in 2020/21), Solskjaer predominantly deployed Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford on the flanks, with the duo given license to cut in and wreak havoc. When everyone is fit and available, though, he will likely go with Rashford and Jadon Sancho this campaign, particularly as these early weeks have indicated Solskjaer sees Greenwood more as a No.9, and not as an inside forward.
Bruno Fernandes, of course, plays in the hole as Man Utd’s creative hub while, for obvious reasons, Ronaldo leads the line, returning to Old Trafford as a converted centre-forward and not the wily winger who once used to terrorise full-backs and metaphorically snap ankles during his formative years. Fred and Paul Pogba will hold the fort at central midfield in a creator-destroyer partnership, though for a more rigid double-pivot against elite opposition, Solskjaer may be tempted to swap out the Frenchman for Scott McTominay, providing his defence with a more impervious buffer.
The back four picks itself. Luke Shaw has seen his stock skyrocket in recent years, Harry Maguire is Solskjaer’s skipper (and the world’s most expensive defender), while Raphael Varane is a medal magnet and former Real team-mate of Ronaldo. Aaron Wan-Bissaka provides the grit and uncompromising defensive resilience to balance this attacking broth. David de Gea will continue guarding the net over Dean Henderson.
The ‘Santos Inspiration’
The key to this entire operation working is getting Fernandes and Ronaldo in sync, ensuring the Portuguese international team-mates establish an almost telepathic understanding of one another. That potentially frightening partnership is yet to truly manifest itself for the national side, but in Fernando Santos’ 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3, the duo have at least had a dress rehearsal.
In the recent 2-1 win over the Republic of Ireland, in which Ronaldo became football’s record international goalscorer, it was a 4-3-3 Santos deployed, and Solskjaer could look to follow a similar blueprint. The Euro 2016-winning coach is another who prefers inverted wingers, so we could see the right-footed Sancho deployed on the left (similar to the recent 1-0 win over Wolves) and the left-footed Greenwood on the right (this being if he is now third in the centre-forward pecking order behind Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani… and potentially Anthony Martial).
Fernandes drops back in a similar role to Portugal, but as an advanced playmaker, with his sole objective being to function as the creative fulcrum and exploit the space between midfield and attack. Fred shuttles and orbits the centre circle as a ball-winner, while Donny van de Beek takes up the No.6 role as a deep-lying playmaker and connector which, according to the Dutchman himself, is his best position.
“Of course, at Ajax I was playing No.10, but I also played a few games No.6. I can play this role,” Van de Beek said on Rio Ferdinand’s popular FIVE podcast.
“That depends on how you play as a team. For how we play, I think the best position for me is a No. 6 or 8.”
The agent of Van de Beek, Guido Albers, also recently came out and said his client has “a clear agreement” with Man Utd about getting more minutes under his belt after the club refused to sanction his departure this summer amid interest from Italy, Germany and England, including Everton.
Albers recently stated: “Disappointed [that Man Utd wouldn’t listen to offers] but also assuring for him, so that he will get his chance, and will get his minutes, but this will become clear in due time.
“He’s been promised that before, but we came to a clear agreement about this with the club, so we have all faith that it will happen now.”
So, we could see a bit more of Van de Beek in the coming weeks.
The ‘Parisian Panache’
Once a foreign concept to Premier League managers, the back-three has become a staple of tactical structures on these shores in recent years — thanks largely to Antonio Conte — and is now a prevalent formation choice on weekdays. Solskjaer himself has not been averse to utilising the formation, notably in last season’s Champions League.
Despite getting knocked out of the groups, Solskjaer was able to mastermind another triumph at the Parc des Princes against PSG, only this time he abandoned his tried-and-test 4-2-3-1 for a 3-4-1-2 to remedy the absence of a then injured Maguire by introducing Axel Tuanzebe, and incorporating more defensive numbers.
The tactical manoeuvre worked a treat as Man Utd ran out 2-1 victors, but Solskjaer has never really experimented with a back-three again, certainly not on a consistent basis. There are three key components here that could tempt Solskjaer to revisit a back-three.
For starters, Diogo Dalot can step into the equation and offer a more refined attacking approach to Wan-Bissaka, with his defensive frailties minimised by a more protective backline behind him. Despite Wan-Bissaka’s defensive elegance, his final ball has proven a bone of contention among Man Utd fans.
Dalot’s objective would be as succinct as they come: get on the ball, run, and cross to serial salmon-leaper CR7! Secondly, Victor Lindelof would have a place in the XI, which is also good news for Ronaldo. If you remember (and Man Utd fans will) his goal against them for Juventus, then Lindelof’s inclusion becomes very clear.
Cast your mind back to November 2018, Ronaldo scores an outrageous volley against Man Utd in Turin after a Leonardo Bonucci long pass found his path. It is a goal etched in Champions League lore, and Lindelof, a long-pass expert, can look to make similar deliveries behind opposition defences for a perennially on-his-toes Ronaldo.
Finally, this formation would allow Greenwood to move back centrally, a position Ferdinand believes is the English youngster’s best, with the former centre-back being heavily critical of Solskjaer after he moved him back out wide for the 1-1 draw with Southampton.
He said on FIVE: “Greenwood has just come back stronger, fitter, better. Coming back growing into a man from a boy – so why shift him from centre forward to out wide to bring Anthony Martial in?
“I don’t understand it. He’s a goal-getter, if Cavani’s not fit put Greenwood as a No.9. I think he’s good enough to do that.
“To play him out wide again… that was the one baffling one for me.”