There is a new coach at Manchester United, but Ralph Rangnick already knows that Cristiano Ronaldo is still the main man.
Who knows how Rangnick’s six-month stint as caretaker coach at Old Trafford will end, but Ronaldo’s two goals – the 800 and 801 of his career – in the 3-2 win over Arsenal proved he simply could not be ignored by interim successor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Can Ronaldo reach 1000 goals? Don’t bet on it
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Former Schalke, Hoffenheim and Leipzig coach Rangnick will officially replace interim manager Michael Carrick, who announced his departure from the club after the match, when he plays his first training session on Friday. Watch the German from the managers box as his new team emerges victorious in an eventful showdown against the Gunners and leaves with his notebook full of issues to tackle.
He needs to deal with goalkeeper David de Gea whose fragility in the crowded penalty area once again contributed to a goal when, in comic circumstances, Arsenal took the lead after Emile Smith Rowe scored while the Spaniard was lying on the ground. A ‘mistake’ by his United teammate Fred. The VAR had to confirm the visitors’ goal due to the confusion surrounding the incident.
Aside from De Gea, who has made a string of impressive saves, Rangnick will be concerned about the quality at both centre-back, the limits of Fred and Scott McTominay in midfield and the inconsistency of Marcus Rashford up front.
But while Ronaldo, turning 37 in February, can’t expect to play every game between now and the end of the season, his performance against Arsenal has removed any doubts Rangnick might have about his value to the team.
With the man credited as the “father of Gegenpress”, a high-energy pressing game that requires strikers to be the first line of defense, Rangnick is unlikely to give up his philosophy just to accommodate Ronaldo in his squad.
Rangnick may bend a bit and make allowances for Ronaldo due to his unique ability to score crucial goals, but it is the player who will have to strengthen and prove himself in the end.
Ronaldo’s sharp exit from the tunnel at Stamford Bridge after Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Chelsea, when Carrick dropped him off the bench, highlighted how the former Real Madrid and Juventus striker would never accept any small role.
But if anyone expected Ronaldo to smile in response to his downfall, he did the opposite in his man of the match performance against Mikel Arteta’s side.
His goals are almost expected now, but the accusation against Ronaldo is that he does not work for the team – any team – and that everything has to go through and be designed to suit his strengths and weaknesses.
Rangnick saw Ronaldo as different from the stereotype. The Portugal captain chased away the defenders, forced them to make mistakes and made a perfect display of “backpress”.
His work rate was exceptional. The late game moment highlighted the effort and determination he showed.
The first saw Ronaldo block defender Gabriel and hit the ground in the 85th minute. It was a foul and he conceded a free kick, but Ronaldo was ready to do it in the latter stages showing he was ready for what Rangnick wanted.
Then, two minutes later, Ronaldo scored a corner kick for Arsenal in the near corner to launch a counter-attack, then quickly sprinted to the other end of the field in a desperate attempt to score his hat-trick after earlier scoring a net from Rashford. A pass and a penalty kick in the 69th minute.
Ronaldo was exhausted by the end of his run and was promptly substituted, but if he had to prove a point, he did so in exemplary fashion.
With a game against Crystal Palace at Old Trafford on Sunday, recovery will be key for Ronaldo over the next 48 hours. But Rangnick must do everything in his power to make sure the Portugal captain is fit and energetic to start his first game in charge.
He can thank Carrick, who left the club 15 years after arriving as a player from Tottenham Hotspur, for the winning platform on which he can now build.
Under Carrick, United won twice and drew once to end a losing streak under Solskjaer. Bruno Fernandez’s first-half goal, ahead of Ronaldo’s second-half brace, proved enough to win the match, although Martin Odegaard made it 2-2 in 55 minutes.
Confidence is returning, but United remain a team that needs structure and organisation. Delivering this is now Rangnick’s job, but at least he knows he can count on Ronaldo.