Ralf Rangnick has lauded Cristiano Ronaldo’s work rate off the ball as he marked his first match as Manchester United’s new interim manager with a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace on Sunday.
The Red Devils executed a high press that was evident from minute one at Old Trafford, with the Eagles, at times, struggling to cope with the intensity and energy of the host’s closing down, eventually wavering 15 minutes from time as Fred uncorked from range.
Ronaldo, by his standards, went under the radar as he fired a blank, but there was a noticeable change in his approach to this game, one that should silence a raft of doubters. He completed the game having won possession in the final third more times than any other player (three).
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There has been a growing narrative that Ronaldo can’t press; that his game has been tailored to preserve energy and strike in key moments, emblematic of his current goals-to-game ratio since returning to Old Trafford (12 goals in 16 games across all competitions).
The arrival of Rangnick, a devout advocate of a pressing game, one that has shaped the managerial philosophies of some of the game’s greatest German tacticians, not least Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, was hence viewed as a threat to Ronaldo’s individuality; a stylistic clash.
However, on evidence of this first game, Ronaldo is more than up for putting in the hard yards for Rangnick, eating up grass and playing his part. His three possessions won in the final third against Crystal Palace equalled his tally for the entire Premier League campaign.
If you had to double back on that sentence, you would probably not be alone. In 11 Premier League games under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Michael Carrick, Ronaldo won possession in the final third just three times. In one Premier League game under Rangnick, he has matched that total.
In fact, on the whole, Man Utd won possession in the final third on 12 occasions against Palace, the most they have managed this season. For context, that is at least five more times than in any other league game this campaign. Jadon Sancho also matched his previous tally under Solskjaer and Carrick (two).
“I am very happy with the way the team performed, especially the first half-hour, with the pressing, it was exceptional. The only thing missing was the 1-0 or 2-0,” Rangnick told BBC Match of the Day after the game.
“The way we defended, we had control of the whole game, the clean sheet was the most important part.
“These are the things we must improve. We need to keep clean sheets. With just the one training session, I was really impressed. We did much better than expected.
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“We always tried to be on the front foot. We were never not apart from maybe the last five minutes. At all other times we were trying to keep them away from our goal.
“We wanted to play with two strikers, especially in the central position. By the way, Cristiano Ronaldo’s work off the ball. Chapeau!”
So, while Ronaldo didn’t get his name on the scoresheet, he may have just answered one huge pre-match question: how will he fare under Rangnick? The early signs indicate the Portuguese superstar can play a high press and may be willing to sacrifice some aspects of his individuality for the good of Rangnick’s system.