The amateur body language experts were out in force again on Friday at the sight of Cristiano Ronaldo wrapping his arms around Anthony Elanga after the teenager missed the decisive penalty against Middlesbrough.
Ronaldo consoled a distraught Elanga as they headed towards the Old Trafford tunnel, with the 19-year-old’s penalty handing victory to Boro on another humiliating night in Manchester United’s season.
Ronaldo has often been the first player down that tunnel this season and his frustrated body language after poor results, as well as his angry reaction to being substituted at Brentford in January, has been the source of much debate.
Almost every time United have stumbled this season Ronaldo has raced straight towards the dressing room and away dayers have become accustomed to not seeing him in front of their end at the final whistle. He did the same at the Brentford Community Stadium after visibly showing his frustration at Ralf Rangnick’s decision to take him off, hurling a training jacket to the floor and continuing the debate from the steps of the dugout.
But the 37-year-old has also displayed the kind of no-nonsense leadership United fans are calling for. His criticism of the mentality of some of the club’s younger players went down well amongst a frustrated fanbase and came after he tried to help them. His treatment of Elanga on Friday showed Ronaldo at his best. His penalty in normal time could have settled matters in 90 minutes and he spoke from experience in reassuring the academy graduate.
In many ways, however, the debate around Ronaldo’s body language is missing the point. A born winner who can’t hide his frustration or a soloist throwing a tantrum when things aren’t going well? As long as he’s scoring goals, it’s almost irrelevant., and he is United’s top scorer this season.
But is he scoring enough? Ronaldo has 14 goals in 24 games this season, which is a solid enough return on the face of it, but he has undoubtedly saved his best for the Champions League, where his return of six goals in five games is basically why United are into the knockout stages at all.
In the Premier League, he has eight goals in 18 games and a return of 0.49 goals per 90 minutes, below the 0.65 goals per 90 that Edinson Cavani managed last season.
His expected goals (xG) tally in the Premier League is 9.2, according to fbref.com. That’s not a significant underperformance in terms of the goals he’s scored, but fbref data goes back four seasons – which includes his three campaigns with Juventus in Serie A and his last season with Real Madrid – in which he scored 107 league goals from an xG of 100, so there is a drop-off.
He’s playing for a struggling team at the moment and that should be taken into account, but if he’s been an upgrade on Cavani it’s only marginal. His biggest benefit ahead of the Uruguayan is his availability.
Ronaldo turned 37 on Saturday but remains in remarkable physical shape, but it’s inevitable that as his career ticks towards the end there might be a slight dulling of his gifts.
His penalty miss on Friday night was unfortunate but even the best miss spot-kicks. In fact, that was the 29th Ronaldo has missed in his career. Of more concern are the chances in open play that are coming and going.
He took 10 shots in total against Middlesbrough on Friday night and failed to find the back of the net. There were a couple of first-half opportunities where his pace to get clear of the last line of defense wasn’t quite there, or the finish lacked conviction.
After the break, he hit the side-netting when he really should have scored after good work from Marcus Rashford and then failed to get a shot away after an excellent Jadon Sancho through ball. That put Ronaldo one-on-one with Joe Lumley and while the goalkeeper was out quickly, it did feel like Ronaldo at the peak of his powers would have found the back of the net. Instead, he tried to round Lumley but found himself too close to the byline to then get a shot away.
Ronaldo is hitting the target with 32.8% of his shots in the Premier League this season, according to fbref. That is lower than the five seasons previously for which they hold stats, when his accuracy never dipped below 34.2%. For comparison, Cavani hit the target with 42.9% of his shots in the league last season.
There are also fewer shots per game for Ronaldo now, although that is less a concern individually than a result of playing in a more competitive league for a side that is struggling. His 1.24 shots per 90 is well below his previous low of 1.93 per 90, which came at Juventus last season.
It’s important to remember these samples are across 18 Premier League games and that there is still time for Ronaldo to put the afterburners on. Only Mohamed Salah, Diogo Jota and Jamie Vardy have scored more than eight Premier League goals this season, although seven players have scored eight times, including Emmanuel Dennis, Emile Smith Rowe and Raphinha.
This season hasn’t gone how Ronaldo would have expected when he returned to the club. His second debut against Newcastle, when he scored twice in a 4-1 win and looked like he could power a title challenge, feels a long time ago now.
Rangnick’s machine is misfiring across the pitch at the moment and Ronaldo is perhaps the least of his problems. His Champions League contributions have been invaluable and he could well haunt Atletico Madrid again in the last-16.
Ronaldo is the club’s highest-paid player on a salary in excess of £400,000 a week, however. At the moment he’s scoring every other game in the Premier League. That’s a decent return, but it’s a fair assumption United would have expected more when the homecoming was confirmed at the end of August.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.