The Portugal international may face a battle for a starting spot at Old Trafford after the teenager scored for the third consecutive game at Wolves
Match stats: Wolves 0-1 Manchester United
Manchester United have a goal-rich hero returning to the club, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may have to ask himself during the international break how he can justify putting Cristiano Ronaldo on the team at the expense of Mason Greenwood.
This is Ronaldo we are talking about, so of course he will start as soon as his arrival is stamped. United are not bringing the Portugal international ‘home’ for him to warm up the bench.
But while his arrival will rightly excite United fans, Solskjaer now faces a headache over how he’s shaping his team around the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Chants of “Viva Ronaldo” were heard hours before a ball was kicked at Molineux as United traveled on Sunday to face Wolves, and the atmosphere will be electric when the prodigal son finally makes it back to Manchester.
But United’s performance here only highlighted that the 36-year-old is a luxury asset who, while thrilling the fans, will not solve the long-term problems on Solskjaer’s side and perhaps create one for Greenwood.
The England striker’s 80th-minute win against Bruno Lage’s side was his third goal of the season, making Greennwood the first teenager to score in the first three Premier League games of a new season since Robbie Fowler did the same for Liverpool in 1994-95.
The 19-year-old picks up where he left off last season, with his impressive performances and his slanting attack here, who was assisted by debutant Raphael Varane, meaning he has now scored nine goals in his last eleven league appearances.
He is unstoppable in that form. As Solskjaer put it at his post-match press conference, “he’s a special kid”.
Greenwood’s attack came after being pushed to the right as Edinson Cavani had come off the bench in the second half to replace Daniel James and go through the middle, but Greenwood’s displays against both Leeds United and Southampton showed that he has developed well enough that he can also operate effectively in that centre-forward role.
So with Cavani still a threat and Greenwood in the shape of his life, what does that mean for Ronaldo?
This was Solskjaer’s 100th Premier League game in charge of United, and while he’s had to make some tough team selection decisions since taking charge, perhaps the most challenging are now coming up.
Reinforced this summer with the signings of Jadon Sancho, Varane and Ronaldo, Solskjaer has a depth to his squad that he has not had in the past two seasons.
On offense, he now has Ronaldo, Sancho, Greenwood, James, Cavani, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and arguably, Paul Pogba, who is better on the pitch, to choose from. An impressive roll call on paper, but how will it work in reality if he wants to feed every mouth?
“He’s not signed to sit on the bench, of course not,” Solskjaer said of Ronaldo after the game. “Obviously he’s going to make us a better team.”
So if Ronaldo is going to start, who will be missing? And will his presence be enough to clear up the issues that made United’s overall performance here a worrisome picture of what’s to come.
With Sancho making his full-length debut and James favoring the left, Pogba was pushed deeper to bring Fred together in the double pivot at United’s midfield base. Needless to say it didn’t work.
Pogba loves the freedom to roam and move forward, and Fred has shown both here and against Southampton that he is not the formidable shield of defense Pogba needs next to him if he is to gain that freedom.
United’s lack of control in midfield led to Wolves dominated the first half, while United failed to register a shot on goal. Their performance was so bad that former club captain Roy Keane joked about air sports that he hoped Ronaldo wasn’t looking or he’d change his mind about the transfer!
It has been clear for some time that United need an elite defensive midfielder. Club chiefs aren’t naive enough to think it’s not a position that needs reinforcements, which is why Declan Rice, among others, has been under surveillance for some time now.
But for now, they’ve got Fred and an aging Nemanja Matic to choose from, while Scott McTominay, himself far from the finished product, is recovering from groin surgery.
Solskjaer chose Fred here and it cost him almost twice his side in the first six minutes.
First, the Brazilian gave possession in his own half to give Adama Traoré a glorious chance, after which Raul Jiminez was able to save his shot through David de Gea.
Fred was then shamefully muscled by Francisco Trincao as Wolves counterattacked, but was saved by a superb goal line from Aaron Wan-Bissaka. His performance improved from there, but only marginally.
The only saving grace for Solskjaer’s side was that despite all the chances they created, Wolves didn’t seem to finish, and even when it looked like they might finally break the deadlock midway through the second half, De Gea delivered a remarkable double save . to deny Roman Saiss.
The goalkeeper’s intervention, along with the decision not to award a foul against Pogba for a challenge on Ruben Neves in the run-up to Greenwood’s attack, proved crucial as United extended their unbeaten league streak to 28 games – a new one. English top flight record.
Next up after the international break is Newcastle at Old Trafford and Ronaldo’s possible homecoming. Since all the songs after the final whistle here focused on the club’s newest addition, the home crowd promises to be feverish on September 12.
But unless Ronaldo can make a shift in central midfield, it looks like United’s known shortcomings will continue, even if he can play alongside the flying Greenwood.