Stop talking about Cristiano Ronaldo's pressing
Pressing has become and when we put our focus there we're missing the forest from the trees
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When Manchester United signed Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer of 2021 those who were against the move quickly settled on the same argument; “Ronaldo doesn’t press.” Pressing, of course, is very important in the modern game. All the best teams in the world press from the front to some level. Fans, along with then manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, had all vocalized a desire for United to become a more modern team that pressed higher up the pitch. To sign a player who doesn’t press seems counter intuitive to that plan.
Ronaldo’s pressing - or lack thereof - became an easy target. In 2021 how much a player “presses” is counted and freely available to the public. You can quickly go to Fbref and see that Ronaldo is in the first percentile for pressures among forwards. It’s easily digestible and therefore it quickly became a buzzword.
That’s where things start to spiral. Buzzwords get picked up by the mainstream media. Buzzwords become the topic for pundits to discuss because they are a means of taking complex topics and dumbing them down for the masses. The simplicity of the numbers being right there and available to everyone means the media can’t ignore them. They have to talk about them - even if they lack pundits who fully understand what exactly these numbers mean or how to contextualize them.
The result is a debate on Sky Sports where Jamie Carragher offers lines like “Ronaldo isn’t a good fit for Man United because he doesn’t press” while Roy Keane yells back lines like “who cares about pressing?!? You don’t win football games by pressing you win by scoring goals. Ronaldo isn’t in the team to press, he’s in the team to score goals! You don’t see people worried about Erling Haaland pressing. Where would United be without his goals?”
The back and forth continues with very surface level arguments while Sky cuts up the clips and puts them on social media. From there fans can say “what does Jamie Carragher know? He’s never won the Premier League!” - as if that’s the be all end all for knowing what you’re talking about. The posts then get shared millions of times as fans either rush to mock Carragher or latch on to that pressing word as they try to make their point.
The thing is, many fans don’t fully understand the concept either. While #analyticstwitter is something that exists, a far greater number of people aregetting their information and punditry solely through the mainstream media.
The conversation ultimately gets dumbed down to nothing more than the buzzword of pressing. While Sky is busy patting themselves on the back because their engagement numbers are through the roof, no depth is provided. There’s no explanation of what exactly pressing is, or even ‘what is a player expected to do?’
The word ‘pressing’ is now merely a red herring. It’s a distraction that prevents the conversation from getting to the more important question of ‘explain in actual detail why this player doesn’t fit?’
Because the truth of the matter is, it’s not the pressing.
Ronaldo very much can press. For the center forward pressing isn’t all that difficult and it’s far more mental than physical. Yes you need to have a desire to run and close down opponents but the center forward’s main job is simply to start things. He wants to force the ball to go to a certain location where he knows his teammates are going to win it back. The most important qualities the striker needs is to know when to press someone and what angles to cut off while doing that.
Notice here how Ronaldo first cuts off the pass to the center back before closing in on the goalkeeper. The result is a United throw in.
The focus on pressing is so extreme that it’s made out to be the only thing Ronaldo is lacking in and it’s almost as if Ronaldo himself is aware of it. As if he’s setting out to say ‘they say I don’t press, I’ll show them’ before he breaks forward to run down the goalkeeper.
Except one player pushing up and closing down a goalkeeper isn’t necessarily pressing. Pressing is about the collective work of the team. If one player goes when the rest aren’t it’s not only not going to work, but you’re putting your teammates at disadvantage. Furthermore pressing doesn’t necessarily have to be high up the pitch. If the team is trying to play a mid-block and one player pushes all the way up on the goalkeeper and center backs, that’s going to be detrimental too.
Prior to Ronaldo’s arrival, United weren’t a high pressing team. They were however a team that played with a high line as they defended in a compact mid-block press.
When Ronaldo arrived, the height of United’s line hardly changed. But while the team stayed in their mid block, a ‘determined to show em’ Ronaldo would often push up high. Without the support of his teammates behind him United would quickly become stretched out.
This created a ton of space for the midfield to cover, and with low work rate wingers like Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford not providing much assistance, the midfield was unable to protect the back four and United were a defensive disaster.
To mitigate this Ralf Rangnick began setting his team up deeper and deeper as the season progressed, calling off any semblance of a press. If you’re not pressing then surely Ronaldo’s lack of pressing can’t be a problem?
As mentioned above, it goes beyond the pressing. Pressing is the buzzword which hogs all the airtime. No one can ever dive into things like, ‘keeping the shape.’ If you’re defending with all 11 men, you need all 11 men to keep the shape. If you’re trying help your defense by playing a 4-4-2 but your left striker isn’t even in the picture, that’s not helping your defense, that’s putting them under more pressure.
Under Erik Ten Hag, all the talk has been about buying in on the work for the collective, and again it seems as if Ronaldo has recognized the focus is simply on his defending. If he buys in there, that’s the job done.
In United’s first Thursday Night Champions Leaguematch against Real Sociedad Ronaldo was credited with 14 pressures, the second most he's had in a United shirt. He had a success rate of 28.6 percent which is very good for a striker.
Obviously these are numbers that can easily be used to say Ronaldo is starting to buy in to Erik Ten Hag’s principles. To say that though would be missing the forest for the trees.
The thing about Erik Ten Hag is, it’s not just working for the collective without the ball, but with the ball too. In possession Ronaldo kills United as he continues to march to the beat of his own drum.
Let’s make this clear. Cristiano Ronaldo is not a striker nor has he ever been a striker. He can’t play on the wing these days because he doesn’t have the pace or work-rate to play there in today’s game so down the middle is the only choice. Therefore Ronaldo can (somewhat) be forgiven for not moving like a striker.
Erik Ten Hag’s system requires the striker to play like a striker. Cristiano Ronaldo likes to move around to try and get on the ball, which often drags him out of position.
There is a value to your striker dropping deep to drag defenders out of position - that’s the entire concept of the false-9 system - but to take advantage of that you need to make smart runs and have teammates filling in the space. Most importantly, you need the defenders to actually vacate the space.
That doesn’t happen with Ronaldo, watch here as two players follow him as he moves around yet despite being double teamed, he doesn’t open up any space for his teammates.
Here Ronaldo comes all the way out wide and calls for the ball, even though he’s not in any advantageous position. Even if he spins and beats his man, Sociedad have three players in position to provide support.
Ronaldo’s positioning means someone else has to take up the striker position to offer United a threat in the middle. In this case, Fred does that, but Fred is not the player you want going up against center backs in the box, Ronaldo is! And Dalot is the guy you want ready to serve up a cross to him. There’s no reason to come and try and take the ball off of Dalot. When Dalot gives the ball to Ronaldo its created a situation where four United players can be marked by three defenders.
Ronaldo’s movements can be downright bizarre. Here he starts on the shoulder of the center back where the striker should be, but then drops to almost on top of Bruno Fernandes, bringing an extra defender towards the ball and taking away all of Bruno’s options except to pass out wide.
Whereas Ten Hag stresses movements that benefit the team, Ronaldo makes movements that benefit Ronaldo. He loves to hang out in the left half space at the top of the box where he can cut onto his right and blast a shot, so whether that’s where he should be or not, that’s where he often seeks to go.
In the final minutes against Arsenal United booted a goal kick deep down the field. As the target man, Ronaldo’s job is to win that header or flick it on for someone to run in behind. He does that job and flicks it on to Fred. Now his job is to make a run into the box, but instead of running towards the near post where United need a player, Ronaldo chooses to run directly behind Fred, in hopes of Fred making a drop back - only that’s where Christian Eriksen would be.
Now it’s easy ask what does this matter since it’s pretty clear that there’s no chance Ronaldo would have gotten into the box in time on this play anyway, but ask any coach and they’ll tell you they’d rather a player be late making the right run then making the wrong one.
Despite the positioning and the marching to the beat of his own drum, what really kills United are simply the shots Ronaldo isn’t getting. It’s becoming all too common to see Ronaldo not getting shots in situation where he used to be lethal.
Perhaps nothing sums up where Ronaldo is more than this sequence here. Ronaldo does the selfless pressing Ten Hag’s system demands. That pressing forces a turnover that United quickly turn into a chance. In this case he’s rewarded with the chance being created for him, but he’s unable to even get a shot off.
Cristiano Ronaldo is the best pure goal scorer to ever play the game. Nothing he does or doesn’t do this season will ever change that. He’s just not that player anymore.
In Jose Mourinho’s first season one of his jobs was to phase Wayne Rooney out of the team while still giving him enough opportunities to break Sir Bobby Charlton’s goal scoring record. Throughout the season, no one was arguing for him to play more. When United let him go for an undisclosed fee at the end of the season no one was saying ‘how could we let him go? He’s the club’s all time leading goalscorer! We need his goals!’
We had watched him for three years, we knew. He might have been our all time leading scorer but he was nowhere near the player he used to be.
That’s what happens to everyone eventually, and it’s now happening to Cristiano Ronaldo. The proof is right there in front of us for all to see.
Only we’re not discussing it. Instead of breaking down why he’s not a fit in Ten Hag’s system we’re just sticking to the buzzwords and focusing all our conversations on “pressing” where one side simply says “he doesn’t press” and the other says “who cares?”
The more the conversation stays on his pressing, the more it misses the point.
Haaland is in the 20th percentile for pressing among forwards so he’s pressing a bit more than Ronaldo. He’s also scoring a bit more goals
The dirty little secret is most footballers don’t actually know much about the game, they were simply focused on playing it and improving themselves rather than the tactical side of the game. Most players turned pundits are only good pundits for a few years because they lean heavily into “when I was playing” anecdotes and considering how much the sport constantly evolves, after a few years those experiences aren’t too relevant anymore. Anyway, there are tons of great analysts out there who not only have never won the Premier League but have never even played professional football! They still know what they’re talking about. (And the only part of that group that I include myself in is I too have never won the Premier League or played professional football).
[unfortunately in my opinion]
This is how I will be referring to UEFA’s PREMIER Thursday Night football competition
And don’t say it’s the final minutes and United aren’t trying to score. Cristiano Ronaldo is ALWAYS trying to score
Great piece! I have to admit I've been caught up in the pressing debate too at various points over the past year and a bit but having come back to this piece I'm reminded of the more important points that you have raised.