There has been speculation about shirt numbers, billboards welcoming him to Manchester, and endless choruses of “Viva Ronaldo!” at Molineux last weekend. There has been “Sir Alex, this one is for you” and endless goal compilations from happier times.
There has been such pomp and circumstance surrounding his arrival that it is easy to forget Cristiano Ronaldo will soon be playing actual games of football for Manchester United. As soon as 11th September against Newcastle United at Old Trafford, in fact. As the United faithful wait with bated breath for the second coming, the ‘Last Dance’, of a global football icon, now feels like the perfect time to discuss what Ronaldo playing for this current Manchester United side might look like.
We have covered how Ronaldo could impact the emergence of fellow forward Mason Greenwood before. But the England international is not the only one who could see his minutes limited. It is safe to say Bruno Fernandes is a lock to start in the number 10 role, so talk turns to the two wings and the centre forward role.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer essentially has six first teamers duking it out for three starting slots. Greenwood and Ronaldo are joined by Edinson Cavani, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Anthony Martial. This is without mentioning Paul Pogba, who has enjoyed some success on the left wing, and Jesse Lingard who remains at the club despite interest from West Ham. United reportedly experimented with a 4-3-3 formation in pre-season, but it seems unlikely this will be used now. As well as limiting Solskjaer to three attacking selections, he also lacks a defensive midfielder who can work alone effectively in such a set-up.
Positionally at least, it seems like the manager will have a clear choice of centre forward. Despite an excellent first year in English football, it seems inevitable Cavani will cede his place to the man who has also taken his number 7 jersey. While Ronaldo first warmed Old Trafford hearts as a tricky winger, at 36 he has evolved into an out-and-out goal-scoring striker. Of his last 50 games, 43 of them have come in a centre forward role.
While there is the flexibility to play Ronaldo wide with Cavani through the middle, this does not suit the way Solskjaer likes to start games. The Norwegian favours a counter-attacking style based on pace, and while his new signing is in incredible condition, Greenwood, Sancho and Rashford offer more in terms of pure speed. United’s past and present number 7s will likely only dovetail late in games against teams sat deep, looking to pick the lock against resolute defences.
With Cavani likely to feature most often when Ronaldo is not on the pitch, who is likely to play around Ronaldo? Pogba’s time on the left, as fruitful as it was, is surely over now. It is hard to envisage the Frenchman starting out-of-position when Solskjaer has specialists at his disposal. His countryman Martial is unlikely to see a great deal of game time, as his plummeting form saw him reportedly made available for sale on deadline day. With everyone fit, it feels likely that the England trio of Sancho, Rashford and Greenwood will compete for a supporting role in The Cristiano Show. With Rashford still recovering from a shoulder operation, it is likely Ronaldo will be flanked by fellow new signing Sancho, and the in-form Greenwood for the immediate future.
Of course there are worse problems for United and Solskjaer to have. If he can keep this glittering array of stars happy, he can arguably boast the greatest attacking depth in the league. With the club hopeful of going far in all competitions this season, as they hunt for Solskjaer’s first trophy as manager, in theory there will be plenty of football to play. But the situation will become complicated when Rashford returns, while Cavani is not the sort of personality who is happy to sit on the bench every week. It is also hard to imagine Ronaldo accepting anything less than starting every game.
On the pitch, United’s incredible armory boasts significant firepower. Off the pitch, this most top-heavy of squads presents a delicate balancing act for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.