Gary Neville and Roy Keane both believe Cristiano Ronaldo’s goalscoring feats can make up for faults in his defensive game at Man Utd under Erik ten Hag next season.
Ronaldo moved level with Heung-min Son in joint second in the Premier League goalscoring charts with his 17th of the season on Thursday, earning United a 1-1 draw with Chelsea on Thursday evening with what was his fifth strike in his last three games for the club.
The 37-year-old has scored eight of United’s last nine goals, including match-winning hat-tricks against Tottenham and Norwich, in an emphatic response to criticism that came his way earlier in the season during a run of one goal in 10 games.
Neville and Keane both highlighted Ronaldo’s ill fit for Ten Hag’s high-pressing style, but said the five-time Ballon D’Or winner’s sheer quality meant he should have a chance to see out the second of his two-year contract at Old Trafford.
Speaking on the Gary Neville Podcast, Neville said: “He lifts the fans, he gets them on the edge of their seats, takes his chances, and it’ll be really interesting to see what happens with Erik Ten Hag.
“We knows he plays with an aggressive press, he tries to win the ball high up the pitch, that isn’t Cristiano’s strong point and we know that. But he will want a goalscorer. He will want someone who can put the ball in the back of the net 20 or 25 times.
“Can Manchester United use him as a bridge next season to get them through Erik Ten Hag’s first season? Ronaldo is a phenomenon. He’s achieved everything and more in the game, his professionalism is beyond anything you could ever wish for, really.
“He still continues – his persistence, his determination to score goals is absolutely incredible. You can’t speak highly enough of him, his goal tonight was wonderful and he doesn’t really lose that belief in himself when the rest of the team is really lacking in confidence – his is still there.
“He’s a sensation, an absolute sensation. I talked about the attitude of the players in the first half and I wasn’t really talking about him, he’s proven over a long period of time and what he’s doing, the shape of his body and the recovery from the tragedy only last week to still perform, to get back on the bike and go when he could’ve easily said he was staying off for a few weeks. In a poor season for United he’s been a bright light in some ways.”
Keane highlighted Ronaldo’s mastery of “the hardest part of the game” – scoring goals: he has scored 20 times in 12 consecutive league seasons, with the possibility to make that 13 in the final three matches of this campaign.
And the former United captain said the bit-part defensive role some former strikers, including Eric Cantona and Ruud Van Nistelrooy, had played during his time at the club shows how Ten Hag could build a pressing team around Ronaldo during his first season at the helm.
Keane told Sky Sports: “I know people are quick to criticise what [Ronaldo] doesn’t do, in terms of his pressing, but he was never great at that anyway. He’s the greatest at the hardest part of the game – putting the ball in the back of the net.
“That was his only chance tonight. Look at the chances Chelsea were creating; imagine if he’d been in the Chelsea team – he’d probably get 50 goals.
“Ten Hag will be having a sleepless night watching the team, but if you’ve got a player in the group who can score that amount of goals, they have to be involved. He’ll want to play week-in, week-out, the new manager will come in and will be looking for another striker but Ronaldo’s not hanging around unless he’s playing.
“That’s his biggest challenge, working with these personalities. As brilliant as they are, he has to get a team who can compete. And if that’s winning the ball back high and pressing, Ronaldo is not good at that. But I still think you can have him in your team and have other players who can do that.
“Cantona, Van Nistelrooy wouldn’t be great at chasing the ball back for you, but we had enough lads in the team who could win it. People say you need all your players to press, but you can get away with it with one player, and as long as they’re producing the goods you’ll forgive them.”
Rangnick: United need ‘a couple’ of new strikers
Speaking after Ronaldo’s latest point-winning goal involvement, interim manager Ralf Rangnick said Manchester United have become reliant on the Portuguese forward, and will have to invest in that department when the transfer window opens.
“Yes, right now we very much rely on Cristiano,” he said at the press conference following the Chelsea draw. “He also showed a good performance when Chelsea were in possession, he helped out a lot in the second half defensively.
“There has to be a focus on bringing in a couple of new strikers, this is for sure.”