Cristiano Ronaldo rescued Man Utd again against Atalanta but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is struggling to make his team function with him in it; watch Man Utd vs Liverpool live on Sky Sports Premier League from 4pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm
Sunday 24 October 2021 17:04, UK
It was when the conversation turned to Manchester United's off-the-ball work that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer became most animated. "I think we're getting better and better in our pressing," he told Sky Sports.
It was December of last year and Solskjaer, under pressure following a 3-1 loss at home to Paris Saint-Germain, was referencing data showing an increase in United's pressing intensity to highlight the side's progress under his management.
"The coaches have done some fantastic sessions on that," he added. "It's about tactical work and fitness, but also attitude and being on the front foot. If you are able to press with the talent we have, you know you are getting somewhere with the culture as well."
His comments came to mind during Saturday's chaotic 4-2 defeat against Leicester and the subsequent fallout.
Gary Neville described United's performance in that game as "baggy" and "disconnected" on Monday Night Football - "there are spaces everywhere," he added - while Jamie Carragher was similarly critical.
"This is a team who at times are pressing on their own and at times are walking about," said the Sky Sports pundit. "This is not getting worked on in training and if it is, the players aren't taking any notice."
Wednesday's comeback win over Atalanta demonstrated United's enduring powers of recovery and highlighted Ronaldo's unrivalled ability to produce match-winning moments. But the issues evident in their off-the-ball work remain and they are a conundrum for Solskjaer.
When it comes to pressing, the progress Solskjaer spoke of last December has made way for regression.
According to Opta, United have gone from averaging 24.9 team presses per game last season to just 16.4 per game in the new campaign.
It represents a dramatic drop-off and it coincides with Ronaldo's return to Old Trafford.
Bringing him back was in many respects an easy decision for the club. Aside from the obvious romantic pull, and the irresistible urge to snatch him from under the noses of rivals Manchester City, there was the guarantee of goals he still brings at 36.
Ronaldo is already fulfilling that guarantee. His total stands at six goals in nine games so far. Three of them - against West Ham, Villarreal and now Atalanta - have been vital in turning draws into victories.
Ronaldo is already winning United points - both domestically and in Europe - but at the same time his deployment up front is limiting the way in which the team can play.
The Portuguese has never offered much in the way of defensive work-rate - as pointed out by his former team-mate Neville recently - and that rings truer than ever at this stage of his career, when the need to conserve energy for what he does best is greater.
Opta's individual data for pressing shows Ronaldo is averaging just 12.1 pressures per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season. The only United players registering fewer are centre-backs Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof.
Solskjaer talked of turning United into a high-pressing team like Liverpool or Manchester City last season but, for all Ronaldo offers in an offensive sense, that transformation is not possible with a player like him at the tip of the attack.
"If you're going to press, everyone presses," as Carragher put it on Monday.
Solskjaer is now scrambling to adjust his plans accordingly and Saturday's game against Leicester showed Ronaldo isn't the only United player guilty of a lack of intensity out of possession. The same applied to Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood.
Structure was badly lacking and while the drop in pressing intensity may, to some extent, be a deliberate response to Ronaldo's arrival, it is far from clear what Solskjaer wants to see in its place.
"You ended up with two teams: the front five - the egos, the great players, the world-class ones - and the back five," added Neville of their performance against Leicester on Monday Night Football.
"Manchester United ended up with a disconnected, non-compact unit which Leicester found it really comfortable to play against."
Ronaldo's arrival has knocked Manchester United's pressing game out of kilter and it has given Solskjaer headaches in terms of team selection too.
The main one concerns Pogba.
The Frenchman's best position has been a source of incessant debate since his return to Old Trafford but it seemed Solskjaer had struck upon something when he positioned him on the left of the front three at the start of the campaign.
Freed from the defensive responsibilities that come with playing centrally in a 4-2-3-1 formation and able to operate higher up the pitch, the 28-year-old shone creatively, producing a flurry of assists which included four in one game against Leeds.
Greenwood started the campaign as United's central striker, working in close proximity with Pogba and scoring three times in his first three Premier League appearances of the campaign, but both players have since been moved to accommodate others.
Ronaldo has started all but one of United's Premier League and Champions League games since making his debut in the 4-1 win over Newcastle, while Solskjaer must also consider Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Edinson Cavani and Anthony Martial.
For Greenwood, it has meant a return to the flanks. For Pogba, it has meant a return to a central midfield role for which we already know he is ill-suited.
"Pogba went to the left towards the end of last season and Manchester United nearly fell on something," added Carragher on Monday Night Football. "But as soon as Ronaldo comes in, Pogba has to play centre-midfield to get all these players in.
"When Pogba plays centre-midfield, there is a disconnect in the team. He is not disciplined enough to play centre-midfield. I'm not saying he should be out of the team, but he is not a centre-midfield player in a Manchester United shirt."
The situation is compounded by a dearth of elite alternatives in that part of the pitch. Against Atalanta, Solskjaer elected to drop Pogba and revert to a midfield pairing of Fred and Scott McTominay. Their struggles, however, were a reminder of their shortcomings.
"Ole can't go back to McTominay and Fred; he can't go back to Matic and Fred," added Neville on Monday Night Football. "Because we know what that delivers and it won't build Manchester United success."
There is no obvious short-term solution to United's midfield weakness but the bigger challenge for Solskjaer is finding a way to bring organisation and intensity to a forward line spearheaded by Ronaldo.
"What Ole needs to prove is that he is a top manager and that, in his development as a coach this season, he can get his top players to work as hard as the other top players in the league," added Neville on Monday.
"What they have got to try and do is get into a shape of some kind, and work on that shape so they can keep a clean sheet or lose one goal while always scoring two or three. On Saturday, they did not do that and they need to correct that very quickly."
Ronaldo's presence up front puts the onus on the players around him to increase their efforts off the ball but if Solskjaer wants his side to press as effectively as their rivals high up the pitch, then using Cavani instead may be his best route to success.
The Uruguayan is only two years younger than Ronaldo but he offers a level of off-the-ball intensity which contrasts sharply with his team-mate's.
Indeed, the difference between the two players was summed up by a moment late in the recent 2-1 win over Villarreal, when Cavani sprinted towards a yellow-shirted defender near the byline to win back possession for United as Ronaldo watched on motionless.
It was typical of the industrious Cavani, who runs almost two kilometres further than Ronaldo per 90 minutes, according to Premier League tracking data, and registers more than three times as many pressures.
Solskjaer must be tempted to make more use of Cavani but therein lies the conundrum for the United manager. How do you leave Ronaldo out when he continues to deliver game-changing moments like he did against Atalanta?
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