All week leading up to Monday’s clash, the expectation surrounding Manchester United was that the club was in for a beatdown against Liverpool. The Red Devils got off to a putrid start to the 2022-23 Premier League season, losing consecutive games at the hands of Brighton and Brentford. Erik Ten Hag’s tenure at Manchester United could not have started off worse, but he made some big changes to the lineup ahead of their matchup with Liverpool.
Among the notable changes Ten Hag deployed included the decision to bench Cristiano Ronaldo in favor of Anthony Elanga. The legendary striker found himself watching from the sidelines throughout most of the 90 minutes on Monday, and it ended up paying dividends for Manchester United. Joining Ronaldo on the bench was United captain Harry Maguire, who was replaced by Raphael Varane. Not only did United come away with a win, but they looked the far superior side against Klopp’s Liverpool.
United players looked confident and poised, making smart runs off the ball and playing well as a team in the midfield. That’s a stark change from what we’ve seen in previous weeks. Their performance against Liverpool was top class from start to finish, despite conceding a late goal to Mohamed Salah. It was a much-needed victory for the club, and goes to show that despite his reputation, Manchester United may well be better off without Cristiano Ronaldo.
3 reasons Manchester United is better off without Cristiano Ronaldo
3. Ronaldo adds unwanted pressure and attention
Playing for Manchester United comes with a spotlight of its own, but lining up alongside Cristiano Ronaldo amplifies that 10-fold. Ronaldo’s teams are expected to be at the top of the table and in contention for Europe’s top trophies, not duking it out in the middle of the standings and playing in the Europa League. Ronaldo presents a major distraction for the club. Much of the pre-match discussion on Monday was focused on Ronaldo’s absence from the Starting XI, rather than the players who were actually in it.
Ronaldo has been actively seeking a move away from the team and has frequently made headlines with his antics. Whether it be his agent Jorge Mendes reportedly offering him to every top club in Europe, or his shocking decision to leave Old Trafford in the middle of a pre-season friendly after getting subbed off, Ronaldo finds a way to stay in the news cycle. That can make things difficult for a club that is trying to focus on re-discovering its form. The added distractions that come from Ronaldo’s presence simply amplify the pressure United players are already under, resulting in a difficult environment for everyone.
2. Bruno Fernandes is better without Ronaldo
Despite the pair being teammates for their international setup in Portugal, Bruno Fernandes is quite clearly a more confident and overall better player when not teamed up with Ronaldo. The Manchester United attacking midfielder often disappears from the game when sharing the pitch with Ronaldo. That was far from the case on Monday, as Fernandes was active in all facets of the game, whether it be build-up play or tracking back on defense.
At the end of last season, Fernandes made some comments which appeared to suggest that Manchester United may be better off without Ronaldo, praising the attacking trio of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Anthony Martial. Ironically, that was the same top three that managed to put up two goals against Liverpool on Monday, all the while Ronaldo watched from the bench — until getting subbed on late in the game. Perhaps Fernandes was onto something with that tactical tidbit from last season. While Ronaldo is their most recognized player, it can be argued that Fernandes is more important to the current United setup, and Ten Hag should absolutely treat him as such.
1. Ronaldo doesn’t fit into Erik Ten Hag’s system
Erik Ten Hag’s decision to bench Ronaldo was not purely based on United’s struggles. Tactically, the style Ten Hag deploys is not a great fit for the 37-year-old. As we saw during Ten Hag’s spell at Ajax, he often utilizes a tactic that is demanding of his attackers. It’s all about high pressure from top to bottom. Ten Hag prefers a forward who will work hard to win back possession and use their motor for a full 90 minutes. When it comes to tracking back and pressing on defense, that’s not Ronaldo’s area of expertise. He often doesn’t track back at all, which adds to the pressure on United’s defense and midfield.
That’s not to say Ronaldo isn’t physically capable of playing in that fashion, however, it’s well known that he produces at his best with the ball at his feet. The CR7 that became a global icon is renowned for his goalscoring output and ability to make defenders miss with his dribbling ability, not so much his dynamic movements off the ball. Ronaldo, for all his talent with the ball at his feet, often struggles to get back into the ideal attacking position after moving into the midfield to link-up play, a critical component of Ten Hag’s tactical system. It doesn’t seem likely that Ronaldo will improve in the aforementioned areas, given his age, making him an overall poor fit for Ten Hag’s preferred style of play.