When Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United, they were Premier League champions and Champions League finalists. As he returns, it is when they have finished as runners-up in both England and the Europa League.
In Ronaldo’s last three seasons at Old Trafford, they were champions with 89, 87 and 90 points respectively. Their last three campaigns have brought 66, 66 and 74. But rewind to 2007-08 and Ronaldo’s goals made an 18-point difference for United. Something similar could be decisive.
More recently, Juventus would have had 18 fewer points without Ronaldo’s goals last season and 24 fewer in 2019-20. Bruno Fernandes was remarkably influential for United but even his goals were only worth 13 points last year.
The most obvious way Ronaldo could provide an upgrade for United is in front of goal: their tally of 73 last season was their highest in a league campaign since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Their efforts bottomed out at 49 in 2015-16; Ronaldo averaged 1.39 goals per 90 minutes for Real Madrid that season while United as a team averaged 1.28.
Ronaldo has scored at least 25 league goals in each of the 12 seasons since he left United; they have not had a player reach that level since Robin van Persie’s 26 in 2012-13.
A shotaholic’s numbers far outstrip those of his new team-mates: last season Ronaldo had 162 shots in Serie A, while United’s best in the Premier League was Fernandes’ 110. In 2019-20, Ronaldo had 196 to Marcus Rashford’s 84. Ronaldo has had at least 60 shots on target in the last six seasons, after recording a century in the previous five.
By way of comparison, Harry Kane had the most attempts on target in last season’s Premier League, with 47; Fernandes was on 40.
And United were outshot. They had 517 attempts, putting them sixth. Their 197 on target was the third best (but still less than double the number Ronaldo used to produce in his Real Madrid heyday).
United have not had the most shots since 2007-08, when Ronaldo got 42 goals in all competitions, or ranked second since 2009-10.
They have often been found fourth, fifth or sixth. They have fallen short where it has mattered more: for goals. They got 10 fewer than Manchester City last season, which was the closest they have come to the champions’ tally since Ferguson retired.
Last season’s results were skewed by the absence of crowds but United lost six league games at Old Trafford. Ronaldo’s past suggests he can address that failing: Juve lost three Serie A games at home last season, but none in the previous two combined.
In those two title-winning campaigns, they dropped a total of 12 points at home: United dropped 20 in 2019-20 alone, largely with crowds. Ronaldo scored 22 home Serie A goals in 2019-20; if made Juventus win the most winnable games, he also helped them score in virtually all.
United failed to score eight times last season, five more than City.
Over the last four seasons the eventual champions have only drawn a blank two, two, three and three times respectively. In Serie A, Juventus failed to register a goal six times as they lost the Scudetto. Yet that was a rarity: they had only been shut out twice in 2019-20 and three times in 2018-19.
It underlined the merits of having as regular and as consistent a scorer as Ronaldo. United dropped 12 points in 0-0 draws alone, whereas Juventus had a solitary Serie A stalemate in his three seasons.
The Portuguese’s goal tally was boosted by a lot of late goals, but he also scored Juventus’ first in 12 of their league matches in 2020-21 and 13 in 2019-20. It is a way of ensuring they do not draw a blank.
Fernandes got United’s opening goal in eight Premier League games last season but no one else did so in more than four. In 2019-20, when United were shut out eight times, Rashford got the first goal in seven: it was useful but not quite Ronaldo-esque.
It is not just the number or value of goals but the type.
In 2019-20, United only scored five headers, 14 fewer than champions Liverpool; in 2018-19, they had four, the joint fewest. Last season, with Edinson Cavani getting six, their tally of 13 was only two below Liverpool and Everton. But Ronaldo scored seven – which would have put him level with the Premier League head boy, Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
In 2014-15, he got a remarkable 12 headed goals. A repeat could offer United a different dimension.
In a sense, though, the question is whether Ronaldo can repeat his past exploits. The oldest Premier League Golden Boot winner was Jamie Vardy, who was 33 when he won the award in 2020.
Ronaldo will be 37 when this season finishes. He's hardly a stranger to breaking records though.