Cristiano Ronaldo does not press. That is not meant as a criticism of Manchester United’s No 7, only as a statement of fact. Three-and-a-bit games into his Premier League return, Ronaldo has pressed less than any other player in his position. Last season at Juventus, he was among the bottom 1 per cent among forwards for pressing in Europe’s major five leagues. The question is: does that matter?
Many would say not. Ronaldo has scored five goals in five starts. It will be a major surprise if that figure is not in the late 20s or early 30s range by the end of the season, as it consistently was during his time in Serie A. Whether it is goals scored, shirts sold or social media impressions, Ronaldo’s return is likely to be considered a success by any ordinary on-the-pitch or off-the-pitch measure.
Ronaldo was no ordinary signing, though. When you bring one of the greatest players of all-time through the door, in the breathless, sensational manner that United did, expectations are immediately raised. Beyond his individual goalscoring figures, Ronaldo’s return will ultimately be judged on whether he helps to lift United to the level of genuine contenders for major domestic and European honours.
The early evidence is mixed. Ronaldo’s goals have come but United have not convinced. The decision to bring him back to Old Trafford before addressing more immediate concerns – like the lack of a holding midfielder – has been widely questioned, while others have asked whether he could be a cause of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s problems rather than the solution, not least through his reluctance to press.
Pressing has been the defining tactical trend of the last decade but it is not simply something that good teams do and that bad teams should do more of, nor is it a shortcut to success. It can only work if it is implemented properly, with the players who are both willing and capable of carrying it out. It is not necessary in order to be successful either, as several Premier League managers have proven in recent years.
West Ham were the top-flight’s biggest overachievers last season and David Moyes was pound-for-pound the manager of the year. The sixth-place finish and return to European football was largely achieved by staying positionally disciplined, allowing their opponents to have possession but counter-attacking brilliantly. Only four Premier League sides pressed less than West Ham last year.
Before that, Wolves secured two consecutive seventh-place finishes under Nuno Espirito Santo – the first of those being the best finish by a newly-promoted side in 18 years – by focusing on holding their shape when out of possession rather than chasing down opponents. There is no “right” way to play. One name alongside Ronaldo’s in the bottom 1 per cent of pressing forwards in Europe last season happens to be Lionel Messi.
Ronaldo and Messi are exceptional cases, though. Generally, elite-level clubs competing for domestic league titles and major European honours press more and press higher. And despite not having a reputation for being a high-pressing coach in the style of Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola, Solskjaer’s United were no different in that respect before Ronaldo’s return.
United were among the Premier League’s busiest pressers last season when adjusted for possession, along with Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and the stylistically unique Leeds – the only teams who looked to close down the opposition more often than Solskjaer’s side. United also pressed relatively high, making the fifth-most pressures in the final third across the league. Their 46 shots from high turnovers was, again, the fifth-most.
Solskjaer is reluctant to publicly discuss his tactical principles in detail but has always said he wants his players to hunt the ball down, particularly when expected to take the game to the opposition. “We want to press high but it is about finding the right moment,” the United manager explained earlier this year. And during his early days at Old Trafford, several players picked pressing out as one of the differences between him and Jose Mourinho.
“You do see the difference in terms of our high press now,” Chris Smalling said during Solskjaer’s caretaker spell. “No matter who we’re playing, we want to press high and get after them.” Marcus Rashford admitted during the following summer’s pre-season tour that it had been a while since United considered themselves “a real pressing team”. “Now we’ve laid down the fundamentals of how we actually want to press.”
Last season, two players led the way in high-pressing among Solskjaer’s squad. Daniel James would hassle and harry opponents inside the final third more often than anyone else, around nine times per-90 minutes. Just behind him, the 34-year-old Edinson Cavani pressed eight times per-90 minutes, enough to be ranked among the top 60 per cent of forwards in Europe.
Coincidentally, they happen to be the two players most affected by the signing of Ronaldo. Cavani is no longer United’s starting centre-forward following Ronaldo’s return and is no longer wearing the No 7 either. Instead he has the No 21 shirt, vacated by James following his £25m move to Leeds, which was completed days after United reached an agreement with Juventus for Ronaldo.
And so with Ronaldo’s return, one of the more reluctant pressers in European football replaced Cavani in United’s starting line-up and James in the first team squad. Inevitably, perhaps, this has had consequences on the way that United play out of possession. Last season, Solskjaer’s side averaged 171 pressures per game. When Ronaldo has started this season, United have averaged only 151 pressures – around 12 per cent less.
That does not sound like much of a drop-off, even if over the course of a season it would see United fall back into the middle of the Premier League’s pressing table. So to get a better idea of what that difference looks like outside of a spreadsheet, find a clip of Said Benrahma’s opening goal for West Ham against United last month. It is not the most egregious example of Ronaldo’s reluctance to press but it is relevant to the debate around Ronaldo’s pressing, given what followed five minutes later.
Rather than standing over the Kurt Zouma free-kick which starts the passage of play, Ronaldo stands behind Zouma in an offside position and then decides against closing down its recipient Declan Rice, leaving Bruno Fernandes to try and disrupt West Ham’s build-up alone. The goal that follows is not Ronaldo’s fault, though could have been prevented by a more organised and proactive press.
Then, five minutes later, Ronaldo equalised. United went on to win 2-1 and could have won more comfortably had Ronaldo been awarded at least one of two potential penalties. That is why of all United’s games since Ronaldo’s return, that win at the London Stadium best illustrated the trade-off that they have made: that whatever they lose from their pressing and work out of possession, they gain just as much – if not more – by being able to call upon one of the greatest goalscorers of all time.
These are still early days, but unless Solskjaer suddenly changes things, it appears as though United will not press as much with Ronaldo up front. It is not their biggest problem. Many of the tactical issues at the heart of their awkward start pre-existed his arrival and were present with more press-happy players in their attack anyway. It is a gamble that does not feel entirely necessary, though, and whether or not it pays off remains to be seen.