Currently experiencing his longest draught in nearly 12 years, Cristiano Ronaldo is now 4/1 to reach the 20-goal mark for Manchester United this season.
For the last few weeks and months, the question around Ronaldo’s contribution to Manchester United has rumbled on: Are they better with or without him?
The viral debate between Roy Keane and Jamie Carragher attracted millions of views on YouTube after Ronaldo started from the bench in United’s 1-1 draw at Chelsea.
Keane was adamant Ronaldo should be playing regularly, claiming his stats had been good since his return to Old Trafford. Carragher suggested only his goalscoring stats were good, to the exasperation of Keane, who said that’s what the game’s about.
To be fair, Ronaldo’s return in the first few weeks of the season was good. After his debut brace against Newcastle he was 5/2 to be named Premier League Top Goalscorer, and was 5/1 to score 30+ league goals. He was into 2/1 after scoring against West Ham, but out to 14/1 after scoring just one in his next eight.
He’s third favourite at 14/1 now as the league’s joint-sixth highest scorer, with eight.
But by so many other metrics, Ronaldo simply isn’t producing enough for Ralf Rangnick.
In the Premier League, he’s 113th in carries into the final third and 129th in successful dribbles.
Okay, he might not be that sort of player any more. But he’s 54th in touches in the final third, with fewer than Aston Villa’s Matty Cash, and 62nd in shot-creating actions, with fewer than Burnley’s Ashley Westwood.
It won’t shock you to learn he’s 235th in pressures and 242nd in successful pressures, while Liverpool counterpart Diogo Jota is 15th and 17th by the same metrics. And it’s there that the real issue lies.
David Moyes was the wrong man. Louis van Gaal brought results to an extent, but the style of football bored fans rigid. Jose Mourinho was brought in as the big name to get United back to the top, but he doesn’t have the golden touch he once did. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was then hired with more attacking football and a string of brilliant results earning him the job on a permanent basis.
But throughout all these appointments, United lagged behind the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool, who had installed coaches offering high-intensity, high-pressing football with great success.
Playing catch-up, United appointed Rangnick, whose philosophy depends on winning the ball back as quickly as possible, and getting a shift out of his front men.
But as United struggle to get any kind of grip on the top four, the answer to the question of whether United are better with or without Ronaldo seems clearer each week.
While he managed a formidable 81 goals in 97 Serie A games, it became apparently, certainly towards the end of his time there, that his best years were long behind him.
To his credit, as he started to lose the blistering pace and trickery he had as the youthful, electrifying winger at United, he changed his game to become an out-and-out goalscorer. And while he’ll likely always have that knack of scoring goals – at important times no less, see his Champions League goals against Atalanta and Villarreal – he doesn’t quite fit in with the philosophy of the modern high-pressing team.
Of course it’s not easy to say Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t fit in your plans. He’s on a two-year contract with big wages, and Rangnick isn’t blessed with forward options.
Indeed, the Portuguese has started eight of 10 Premier League games under Rangnick, missing one through injury. But he’s scored just two goals – against Norwich and Burnley, and even one of them was a penalty.
However Rangnick’s influence, certainly going forward, is starting to be felt. After a very shaky start with the Reds regularly looking uninspired, half-time at Brentford seemed to be a turning point as they created three big chances and scored three goals.
They then registered 6.0 xG across their next three games against West Ham, Burnley and Southampton, scoring just three in the process. They also created a hatful albeit against Championship Middlesbrough in the FA Cup but still only scored one.
While 20 goals seems a big ask at the moment, if United can sharpen up their newfound attacking cohesion, and Ronaldo can keep his place, it’s certainly not beyond his reach.