Will Ralf Rangnick Bring an End to Ronaldo's Days at Manchester United?

© REUTERS / DAVID KLEINSoccer Football - Premier League - Chelsea v Manchester United - Stamford Bridge, London, Britain - November 28, 2021 Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo during the warm up before the match
Soccer Football - Premier League - Chelsea v Manchester United - Stamford Bridge, London, Britain - November 28, 2021 Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo during the warm up before the match - Sputnik International, 1920, 02.12.2021
Manchester United’s newly-appointed interim manager, Ralf Rangnick, has pundits pondering whether Cristiano Ronaldo’s days at Old Trafford are numbered. Rangnick is known for his highly-effective gegenpressing system, while Ronaldo has won every trophy as the system. Can a footballing zealot and messiah co-exist?
Cristiano Ronaldo remains an elite goal scorer, but at 37, that remains his lone contribution to a side. Provide him service and you’ll be rewarded with goals.
Ronaldo’s player archetype demands that the team system be built around them, which is where the controversy between him and Ralf Rangnick begins.
Rangnick is the grandmaster of gegenpressing. Concepts from the highly-aggressive pressing system have been adopted by nearly every top coach in the world. The core principle of gegenpressing is to press the ball carrier with a numerical advantage.
For gegenpressing to be successful, it must be carried out by all 10 outfield players. If executed properly, a side can routinely win the ball near their opponent’s goal with a disorganized defense. The beauty of gegenpressing is that a relatively untalented side with incredible industry can generate offense at an elite level.
Ronaldo does not press, and at 37 it’s unlikely that he will begin. It isn’t a question of ability, but rather a reality of the fragility of an aging human body. Ronaldo has been able to maintain his fitness and goal scoring but only by directing all of his energy into that singular endeavor.
Since 2018-19, his first season with Juventus, his pressures per 90 minutes have gone down every season. If Ronaldo started out as one of the best pressing forwards, then a decline would be fine. But Ronaldo’s decline started in the bottom one percent for forwards. When it comes to pressing, Ronaldo started at the bottom and has stayed there.
This season, he has averaged 6.45 pressures per 90 minutes, which is in the first percentile for all Premier League forwards. Going back to Rangnick’s final season at Red Bull Leipzig in 2018-19, it looks like Ronaldo will have a hard time earning the German’s trust.
RB Leipzig’s two most-used forwards, Yussuf Poulsen and Timo Werner, both trounce Ronaldo in pressing statistics. In 2018-19, Werner attempted 13.13 pressures per 90 minutes and Poulsen averaged 26.11 pressures per 90 minutes.
The total number of pressures Ronaldo may be able to handle, but the lightning-quick transitions between attack and defense could cause him problems. Rangnick wants his teams, when they lose the ball, to regain it in under eight seconds through pressing. Once they have regained it, he wants his sides to get an attempt on goal within 10 seconds.
Ronaldo cannot flourish in a high-pressing system, nor should he be asked to. Rangnick could try to build a pressing system around Ronaldo’s abilities, but that means more work for others.
The reality is that Ronaldo cannot play in Rangnick’s system. Unless Rangnick makes wholesale adjustments to his system, Ronaldo’s role at Manchester United will be diminished. If Ronaldo is fine with not being a guaranteed starter then he can play out his contract at United and probably add some memorable moments along the way.
It is unlikely, however, that Ronaldo will take a diminished role from a manager whose greatest accomplishment is earning back-to-back promotions with Hoffenheim to reach the Bundesliga.
Ronaldo’s happy days at United may be over. His time there, however, may not be. There are only so many clubs that have a spot for him and the ability to pay his wage. Come the January transfer window, Ronaldo may be looking for another move.
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