How will Manchester United line up with Ronaldo?

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Cristiano Ronaldo Manchester United Juventus GFXGetty Images

In one of the biggest surprises of this transfer window,  Manchester United announced on Friday that they had agreed terms to bring Cristiano Ronaldo back to Old Trafford.

The Portugal captain will make his much-anticipated return pending a medical and a visa and, coupled with the arrival of Jadon Sancho and Edinson Cavani agreeing to stay for another year, it means Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a wealth of attacking options at his disposal.

Ronaldo is a very different player now than he was back in 2009 when he left the club for Real Madrid as the reigning Ballon d’Or holder. He was primarily a star out wide for Sir Alex Ferguson, winning the 2008 Champions League as well as the Premier League title on three consecutive occasions.

His partnership with Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez in 2007-08 in particular was devastating, where Ronaldo lined up primarily from the right to lead United’s goal threat alongside the creativity of Rooney and the tireless workrate of Tevez.

But these days Ronaldo does most of his best work close to the opposition six-yard box; he has become a ruthlessly efficient centre-forward.

At United, the bulk of the wing work will be conducted by younger players like Marcus Rashford - who idolised Ronaldo as a young player coming through - and Sancho.

Ronaldo will instead be expected to solve Solskjaer’s centre-forward issues. His arrival could put paid to the chances of Anthony Martial starting many matches this season, after a poor start, while sensational young striker Mason Greenwood might end up partnering Ronaldo or else have to bide his time for opportunities on his own through the centre.

In any case, Greenwood can legitimately claim to be learning from the best; not only is Ronaldo a bonafide club legend but one of the greatest forwards ever to play the game.

So what are United's options with Ronaldo back in the fold?

Solskjaer spoke about his forward line lacking a clinical edge after their 1-1 draw against Southampton and nobody knows how to finish quite as well as the Portugal international, who has scored 674 goals in 895 club appearances across spells at Sporting C.P., United, Real Madrid and Juventus.

Cavani’s arrival emphasised how much United had been lacking a true striker, as his movement created chances for his team-mates and caused problems for defences.

Ronaldo brings that ability to lead the line and the strongest XI Solskjaer has at his disposal will surely include Ronaldo up top, Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes and new signing Sancho.

At the moment, with Rashford out injured as he recovers from shoulder surgery, he’s not an option, and Pogba has been in sensational form at the start of the season, playing off the left.

Man Utd Ronaldo Formation GFXPlaying Surface

The manager at one stage looked set to depart from the 4-2-3-1 he has become accustomed to and go for a more attacking 4-3-3, but so far we’ve seen the double pivot in defensive midfield going strong.

If Solskjaer does decide to unleash all of his attacking pieces, one of the options would be to play Pogba beside a deep-lying midfielder like Nemanja Matic, Fred or McTominay.

With Sancho and Greenwood’s versatility, they could start either side of Ronaldo up front, switching as they see fit to compliment Solskjaer’s attacking system.

In this formula, Pogba might start in a partnership as he does for France and, like Fernandes, would be responsible for picking up the ball approaching the final third, feeding the wingers and Ronaldo with through balls.

Man Utd Ronaldo Formation GFXPlaying Surface

There are a few options for Ronaldo and Cavani to play together. Although Ronaldo made his name as a winger, he no longer possesses the stamina or pace over long distances to feature there these days and has honed his craft as a striker.

Cavani, however, still has the ability to stretch defences and get in behind from the right and proved his versatility by starring in that position on multiple occasions at Paris Saint-Germain.

That would allow Ronaldo to stay central and wait for crosses from either side, applying the finishes United need in order to close the gap to Manchester City at the top of the table.

It would be a tantalising, all-out attacking formation with Pogba and Fernandes as twin No.8s. There would be more of a burden on the duo for winning the ball back in the absence of a second defensive midfield player, but it would give United unrivalled firepower to break down teams against whom they have struggled for inspiration at times under Solskjaer.

Man Utd Ronaldo Formation GFXPlaying Surface

Another option would be to go back to the historic 4-4-2 which favoured United for so long. A split striker system, of Cavani and Ronaldo up front, could see Fernandes sit slightly deeper with the option to roam into the space behind the front two.

Pogba and Greenwood would provide balance, creativity and power on either wing. Ronaldo played in a partnership at Juve last season, with Alvaro Morata doing the bulk of the work, and the Portugal international firing in the goals.

Man Utd formation GFXPlaying Surface

That strike partnership occasionally featured at the sharp end of a 4-4-2 formation, but far more common was for Andrea Pirlo to line up with three centre-backs and three players in midfield.

Solskjaer has at times deployed his own 3-5-2 system, utilising Luke Shaw as a central defender and giving United more defensive resilience and a threat on the break, particularly in big matches such as derbies against Pep Guardiola’s Man City.

That would see Ronaldo start up front in a duo, but would mean sacrificing one of United’s multiple wing threats. This formation is likely to be reserved for a select few special occasions.

Man Utd Ronaldo Formation GFXPlaying Surface

The key for Solskjaer will be getting the balance right. It is something which Zinedine Zidane got spot-on during his three seasons in charge at Real Madrid, where Ronaldo benefited from the self-sacrificial hard work done by Karim Benzema through the centre.

Accommodating Ronaldo is no easy task and Zidane moved on from the famed ‘BBC’ trio - dropping Gareth Bale in favour of an extra midfielder and deploying Benzema and Ronaldo as a partnership.

Zidane's tactics were good enough for three Champions League titles in a row - with Madrid arguably becoming the most iconic team of the modern era - and Ronaldo was undoubtedly the star of the show.

In Raphael Varane, Solskjaer has captured another star from that historic Madrid era. Now he’s got the enviable challenge of figuring out how to line up his own group of all-stars.

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