The most telling sign of Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United was Solskjaer’s use of Paul Pogba.
Even a thousand miles away from Wolverhampton in Lisbon, Cristiano Ronaldo’s presence was felt in Molineux on Sunday.
Not only because of the cardboard cutout of Ronaldo in the Manchester United kit and the Portuguese flags that the fans held up in the away game, 48 hours after his dramatic return from Juventus at Old Trafford was confirmed.
Not just because of the ‘Viva Ronaldo’ chorus that echoed from that section of the Steve Bull Stand as they celebrated a rather accidental win in the early evening sun.
Cristiano Ronaldo was seen in the butt as Man United fans held up a cardboard cutout
Or because just before kick-off, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had talked more about the man waiting in Portugal to finalize a £19.4m deal than the other two signings, Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho, who have their made a full debut.
No, the most telling sign of Ronaldo’s return was evident in Solskjaer’s squad selection – and in particular his use of Paul Pogba – which gave a clear indication of how he will integrate the Portuguese superstar into this squad.
No sooner had United made his move on Friday than questions were being asked about how nine fit into four. How will Solskjaer fill the front positions in his 4-2-3-1 formation after adding Ronaldo to a group of players that includes Pogba, Sancho, Bruno Fernandes, Edinson Cavani, Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Dan James?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer played Paul Pogba in a deeper role, perhaps with Ronaldo’s arrival in mind
A likely solution lay in the decision to return Pogba to a deeper midfield role alongside Fred. Scott McTominay may be injured but Nemanja Matic replaced him at Southampton a week earlier and the Serb remained on the bench alongside Donny van de Beek.
Pogba was arguably United’s best player in their first two games against Leeds and Southampton, with five assists from a left wing starting position.
But with Ronaldo on his way back, Pogba is no longer guaranteed to play that far up front. Based on this evidence, Solskjaer will try to use him as a midfielder alongside Fred or McTominay after numerous failed attempts. The Frenchman’s lack of defensive awareness is the problem, and Fred was occasionally overrun here.
Pogba’s creativity was certainly missed at Molineux, where his main contribution to the process was a crushing 50-50 challenge on Ruben Neves leading up to Greenwood’s late goal.
Pogba’s creativity was definitely missed at Molineux, as he couldn’t get any further forward
Mike Dean let it go and Ronaldo will be well aware that Premier League referees are more lenient this season. Fernandes, who played a part in the attempt to bring his compatriot back to Old Trafford, is still struggling. He was shown a yellow card for protesting Dean over a string of tackles in the first half and had to be led away from the game management by Solskjaer at half-time.
Sancho, a natural right winger, replaced Pogba on the left, but United’s £73 million purchase was again disappointing after restrained performances from the bench in the first two games, giving way to Martial in the 72nd minute.
Cavani replaced James, meaning Greenwood switched to the right flank from where he made the crucial breakthrough. That meant Lingard stayed on the bench, and there will be even more competition when Rashford returns from shoulder surgery in a month’s time.
So how do you keep them all happy? United have been fair enough to admit that a transfer for Ronaldo was not planned. They were caught by the events at Juventus just as much as the rest of us.
Plans carefully crafted since earlier this year may need to be changed, possibly before Tuesday’s transfer deadline and the submission of a 25-man squad to the Premier League.
Previously, United insisted that Martial is not going anywhere. They gave Cavani a new contract. West Ham have failed in their attempt to capture Lingard. James has stayed despite interest on loans from Leeds and Brighton.
Ronaldo’s arrival was not planned and Solskjaer will find it difficult to keep his attackers happy
There has been interest for Dan James but he is still a United player for now
Solskjaer confirmed over the weekend that Amad Diallo will be on loan for a week after saying he wouldn’t be surprised if the teenage winger remained, and the United manager hinted at more changes when asked on Sunday about the future of the game. James.
“I’m not going to go into individual players and names,” he said. “There have been a few questions for some of our players and with Cristiano signing we can cut down on a few. Dan is currently a Man United player.’
It was easy to forget that Ronaldo’s former Real Madrid team-mate Varane made his first appearance in a United shirt since his £43million move from the Bernabeu.
His first introduction to English football was a one-on-one with Adama Traore in full flight, who came steaming towards him like a runaway freight. Welcome to the Premier League.
However, the Frenchman seized the opportunity very well and the highlight was a fantastic interception when Francisco Trincao broke through early in the second half.
While United held on to victory in extra time, Varane thwarted one last Wolves attack with an agricultural clearance high in the air and out of play on the other side of the pitch.
It’s a long way from La Liga. But Ronaldo already knows that.