It was a mea culpa from Cristiano Ronaldo. “This is on us, only on us, because there's no one else to blame,” he posted on Instagram after Manchester United’s 5-0 defeat to Liverpool. Perhaps he was more at fault than most for United’s loss of control. They had never amassed seven cards in a Premier League game before. Maybe the abiding image was not of Paul Pogba’s red card but of Ronaldo booting Curtis Jones, even though he escaped with a yellow.
He may be culpable in a broader sense, too, in the probable demise of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The most prolific goalscorer in footballing history and one of the select band to find the net for Manchester United in a Champions League final may finish off another. Ronaldo’s signing was the supposed coup that marked the beginning of the end for Solskjaer, unbalancing the squad, creating problems he has so far been unable to solve.
If Ronaldo was trying to exonerate Solskjaer on social media, he may have a particular incentive to do so. Antonio Conte is waiting in the wings, hoping for the United job. A confidant had messaged him even before United’s historic defeat to Liverpool, pointing out that Ronaldo represented a problem. Conte did not reply to that but those who know him are convinced a confrontational manager would drop the Portuguese. He does not work hard enough for the team. Ronaldo ranks joint 321st in the Premier League for successful pressures. To put it another way, he has played 483 minutes and has won the ball from fewer opponents than Southampton’s Stuart Armstrong, who has been on the pitch for 47.
Conserving his energy for scoring has proved a productive policy, but he is a passenger off the ball. It is a reason why United’s pressing game has been so haphazard and why they are so easy to play against.
The issues are not merely defensive. Ronaldo’s stratospherically high profile means he can overshadow everyone else. He can be a lightning rod and Solskjaer has been damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. He was criticised for taking off the 36-year-old when United were down to 10 men against Young Boys of Bern, though Ronaldo’s lack of movement meant they were in effect playing with nine. Then came leaked footage of Alex Ferguson disagreeing with the Norwegian’s decision to rest him against Everton – “you should always start with your best players,” said a manager who did not always follow his own advice – and Ronaldo’s expressive body language at the final whistle highlighted his own dissatisfaction.
But when Ronaldo stayed on against Liverpool and Mason Greenwood, United’s brightest attacker in the first half, was substituted, the team felt less a meritocracy than a star vehicle. More than most, Greenwood has been displaced by Ronaldo. Before the Portuguese’s dramatic return, his goal-a-game start to the season suggested this would be the campaign the player Solskjaer has long described as the best finisher at Old Trafford would graduate into United’s first-choice No 9. Instead the future has been put on hold, with Greenwood shunted back to the flanks.
Then Jadon Sancho, targeted for two years by United to fill the vacancy on the right, has sometimes been on the left, and more often on the bench. Pogba began the season with a flurry of assists as an ersatz left winger, but the attempts to cram in extra attackers meant he was shunted into the centre of midfield, with disastrous consequences, at Leicester City and then benched against Liverpool. If Ronaldo has been a catalyst for United, it has been in creating problems Solskjaer may never solve.