Cristiano Ronaldo scored 18 league goals last season for Manchester United, but whether the club are reliant on or even benefited by his contribution has been a matter of intense debate.
And with the Portugal captain trying to force a move to a Champions League side, that debate must also consider where the Red Devils are likely to get their goals from without him.
Preseason has been a source of optimism for United fans, who have seen a Ronaldo-less attack score 13 goals in four matches.
In the last three years, each member of this quartet has at some point posted a 17-goal league campaign or better.
Two of them – Martial and Rashford – even managed to do it in the same side at United, forming a productive understanding in the 2019/2020 season.
So it would seem that the goalscoring potential is there, even if it will take some coaxing from Erik ten Hag to get them all firing at once.
What is exciting about this attacking unit is that it is fluid enough that play need not be funnelled into certain areas in specific ways in order to be successful.
When Ten Hag spoke of having “multiple weapons” to hurt opposition defences in order to avoid becoming “predictable,” this fluidity made a lot of sense.
Put Ronaldo in the side and one wonders if his teammates would default to hopeful crosses and punts up to the striker as they attempt to get the most out of the goalscorer.
Whether it’s because of his iconic status, his demanding personality or his flapping arms, Ronaldo is a magnet for goals as much as he is a guarantee of them.
While it is impossible to lay the blame for United’s capitulation last season at his door, it is noticeable that Martial, Rashford and Sancho had half as many shots per game (or less) than they managed the season before.
Fernandes was also affected, dropping from 3.3 shots per game to 2.5.
And with Ronaldo limiting the goalscoring opportunities of his teammates by his very presence, should he suffer a period of poor form – as he did when he had his longest goalscoring drought in over a decade last season – United will see wins turn to draws, draws to losses.
But will that attacking quartet score enough goals without him?
Well if everyone has their best possible goalscoring season then yes, easily.
But, inspired by Carl Anka’s article on The Athletic, we’ve taken a look at the average Expected Goals of the four tour attackers over the three years prior to Ronaldo joining Manchester United.
The reason we’ve opted to look at their expected goals rather than their actual numbers is to mitigate the impact of overperformance and account for deviations in form.
And in taking an average over a longer period of time, we hope to come up with a realistic estimate on what all four could achieve playing in the same setup, without any one of them taking up the mantle as the team’s focal point throughout the campaign.
We naturally excluded last season in order to get a more accurate idea of what these players can accomplish without a shot-magnet in the side.
–AVERAGE – 14.09
–AVERAGE – 12.93
–AVERAGE – 7.92
–AVERAGE – 8.51
That would lead to an estimated 43.45xG over the course of the season.
Comparatively, those four managed 20xG between themselves last campaign, so even adding in Ronaldo’s 18.08xG, the Ten Hag tour attackers seem better off without him according to these numbers, even a man down.
And if United can recruit another forward – one who does not limit the shots per game available to their teammates – that gap would only widen.
It would also make up for the periods of injury accounted for in our averages, which limited xG performance for everyone but Bruno in one season or another.
In his article, Anka suggests that 69 in the magic number for a Champions League side to aim for in assuring qualification.
These stats would suggest that Ronaldo is actually making that number more difficult to achieve.
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