The most telling sign of Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s use of Paul Pogba… the Frenchman played deeper at Wolves and the Portuguese super star could blunt his cutting edge
- Cristiano Ronaldo’s presence was felt at Wolves despite not being at Molineux
- Ole Gunnar Solkjaer gave an indication of how he will get Ronaldo in his team
- Paul Pogba played deeper and may not be used as far forward in the future
- Ronaldo’s arrival could blunt the Frenchman’s cutting edge if he plays deeper
Even a thousand miles away from Wolverhampton in Lisbon, Cristiano Ronaldo’s presence could be felt at Molineux on Sunday.
Not just because of the cardboard cut-out of Ronaldo in Manchester United kit and the Portuguese flags held aloft by fans in the away end 48 hours after his dramatic return to Old Trafford from Juventus had been confirmed.
Not only due to the chorus of ‘Viva Ronaldo’ that echoed from that section of the Steve Bull Stand as they celebrated a rather fortuitous victory in the early evening sunshine.
Cristiano Ronaldo was seen in the away end as Man United fans held up a cardboard cut-out
Or because, immediately before kick-off, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had spoken more about the man who is in Portugal waiting to complete a £19.4million deal than the other two signings, Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho, who made their full debuts here.
No, the most telling sign of Ronaldo’s return was evident in Solskjaer’s team selection – and in particular his use of Paul Pogba – which gave a clear indication of how he will integrate the Portuguese superstar into this team.
No sooner had United made their move on Friday than questions were being asked about how nine will fit into four. How will Solskjaer fill the forward positions in his 4-2-3-1 formation after adding Ronaldo to a group of players that includes Pogba, Sancho, Bruno Fernandes, Edinson Cavani, Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Dan James?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer played Paul Pogba in a deeper role perhaps with Ronaldo’s arrival in mind
One likely solution lay in the decision to restore Pogba to a deeper midfield role alongside Fred. Scott McTominay may be injured but Nemanja Matic replaced him at Southampton a week earlier and the Serbian was left on the bench alongside Donny van de Beek.
Pogba had arguably been United’s best player over their opening two games against Leeds and Southampton, contributing five assists from a starting position on the left flank.
But with Ronaldo on his way back, it’s no longer guaranteed Pogba will play so far forward. On this evidence, Solskjaer will try to use him in a midfield pivot alongside Fred or McTominay after numerous unsuccessful attempts. The Frenchman’s lack of defensive awareness is the problem, and Fred got overrun on occasions here.
Pogba’s creativity was certainly missed at Molineux where his key contribution to proceedings was a crunching 50-50 challenge on Ruben Neves in the build-up to Greenwood’s late goal.
Pogba’s creativity was certainly missed at Molineux as he was unable to get further forward
Mike Dean let it go and Ronaldo will be well aware that Premier League referees are more lenient this season. Fernandes, who played a part in the effort to bring his compatriot back to Old Trafford, is still struggling with that one. He was booked for protesting to Dean about a series of tackles in the first half and had to be ushered away from the match officials at half-time by Solskjaer.
Sancho, a natural right winger, replaced Pogba on the left but United’s £73million signing was underwhelming again following subdued appearances off the bench in the first two games, and he made way for Martial in the 72nd minute.
Cavani replaced James which meant Greenwood switched to the right flank from where he made the crucial breakthrough. That meant Lingard stayed on the bench, and there will be even more competition when Rashford returns from shoulder surgery in a month’s time.
So how do you keep them all happy? United have been honest enough to acknowledge a move for Ronaldo wasn’t planned. They were caught on the hop by events at Juventus just as much of the rest of us.
Plans that have been carefully put in place since earlier in the year may have to be changed, possibly before Tuesday’s transfer deadline and the submission of a 25-man squad to the Premier League.
Previously, United insisted that Martial is going nowhere. They gave Cavani a new contract. West Ham have failed in their bid to sign Lingard. James has stayed despite loan interest from Leeds and Brighton.
Ronaldo’s arrival was not planned and Solskjaer will find it difficult to keep his forwards happy
There has been loan interest in Dan James but he is still a United player for the time being
Solskjaer confirmed over the weekend that Amad Diallo will go out on loan a week after saying he wouldn’t be surprised if the teenage winger stayed, and the United manager hinted at more changes when asked about James’s future on Sunday.
‘I’m not going to discuss individual players and names,’ he said. ‘There have been a couple of enquiries for some of our players and with the signing of Cristiano we may give less playing time to a few. Dan is a Man United player at the moment.’
It was easy to forget Ronaldo’s former Real Madrid teammate Varane was making his first appearance in a United shirt since his £43m move from the Bernabeu.
His first taste of English football was a one-on-one with Adama Traore in full flight, steaming towards him like a runaway freight. Welcome to the Premier League.
The Frenchman handled the occasion very well, though, and the highlight was a fantastic interception when Francisco Trincao broke through early in the second half.
With United hanging on for victory in added time, Varane thwarted one last Wolves attack with an agricultural clearance high into the sky and out of play on the other side of the pitch.
It’s a far cry from La Liga. But Ronaldo will know that already.
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