EPL TALK: Uncertainties amid feel-good return of Cristiano Ronaldo

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A cardboard cut out of new signing Cristiano Ronaldo is held by Manchester United supporters during the English Premier League football match between Wolves and Manchester United.
A cardboard cut out of new signing Cristiano Ronaldo is held by Manchester United supporters during the English Premier League football match between Wolves and Manchester United. (PHOTO: Oli Scarff/AFP)

SINGAPORE — How have your favourite English Premier League (EPL) teams performed over the past week? Yahoo News Singapore looks at the key talking points surrounding the league in this weekly review:

How should Ole Gunnar Solskjaer make use of Cristiano Ronaldo?

WHAT HAPPENED: Call it a coup. Call it a hijack. Call it the highest-profile transfer deal of the EPL season. Just don't call Cristiano Ronaldo's sensational return to Manchester United a masterstroke that will land the Red Devils the league title. 

At least, not yet. Not where there are still many uncertainties as to how one of the greatest players of the past 20 years would fit into manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's tactical plans, as well as a Man United squad brimming with young forwards eager for playing time.

For now, Ronaldo's transfer should be regarded merely as a feel-good move by Man United to galvanise their fan base. This is not a bad thing - having a star returning to the club where he made his name creates a powerful positivity that puts both the player and the club in good light. The player remembers his roots, while the club remembers his sizeable contributions.

And the manner in which Man United re-signed Ronaldo so swiftly after talks of a move to fierce city rivals Manchester City broke down was equally crucial in getting the fans pumped up. After all, it felt like a massive statement that, for all of City's recent successes and riches, Ronaldo was swayed by his strong historical link with United instead.

For a fan base which has been yearning for league success since the Red Devils last won the EPL in 2013, this seems like the crucial ingredient for United to take the final steps to the title, after their second-place finish last season. 

Except it is not quite so straightforward. While Ronaldo still possesses that otherworldly scoring prowess that had inspired Man United's hat-trick of EPL triumphs in 2006/07, 2007/08 and 2008/09, it has been 12 years since he last played a full season in the English league.

While he still won with Real Madrid in the Spanish La Liga and Juventus in the Italian Serie A after leaving Man United, he is returning to a league which places a bigger emphasis on pressing from the forward line and swift movements than the other two elite European leagues. 

Man City and Liverpool - the last two title-winning teams - harass their opponents all over the pitch and, up on winning possession break forward with deadly speed to dominate and win games. Man United are no different in terms of employing fast counter-attacks, even though they do not press as much.

So while Ronaldo remains in phenomenal physical shape at age 36, he is notorious for his reluctance to press - he was in the bottom 2 per cent of forwards in Europe’s top five leagues in terms of pressures per 90 minutes last season. 

If he continues to be unwilling to press, not only would it disrupt Solskjaer's tactical plans, but he would also set a poor example to his new teammates. Solskjaer would be under unnecessary pressure to adapt to the whims of Ronaldo.

Also, Ronaldo's arrival means further competition for playing spots amid a Man United squad already stacked with highly-rated attacking talents such as Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and new signing Jadon Sancho. Will the veteran take away valuable playing time from these upstarts? 

And finally, will his arrival put even more pressure on Solskjaer to deliver the EPL title? The Norwegian has charted a steady progress in recent seasons, and has shown astute man-management skills in shaping his star-studded team, but the fact remains that he has no title-winning experience as yet. 

Can he quickly integrate Ronaldo, convince the Portuguese of his role in the team, and take United to what would be a momentous 14th EPL title triumph? 

So many uncertainties amid the giddiness of United fans at their idol's return. For neutral fans, it would make for compelling drama throughout the season. Whatever it is, all eyes will be on United and Ronaldo this season.

WHAT'S NEXT: Ronaldo is scheduled to join up with the Man United squad after the international break, which may mean too short a time to get his ready for the Red Devils' first match after the break, against Newcastle at home on 11 September. He could make his eagerly anticipated league return away against West Ham the following week, while making his Old Trafford bow in front of his adoring fans on 25 September against Aston Villa.

Emile Smith Rowe of Arsenal druing the Premier League match between Manchester City and Arsenal.
Emile Smith Rowe of Arsenal druing the Premier League match between Manchester City and Arsenal. (PHOTO: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Troubled Arsenal need wins to buy time

WHAT HAPPENED: If it already seems like ages since Ronaldo last played in the EPL in 2009, it definitely feels like an eternity since Arsenal last won the league in 2004.

And after Saturday's 0-5 walloping by Manchester City that left them bottom of the table, the Gunners' next EPL title would seem like an eternity away for their increasingly-angry fans. Years of promising improved results and serious title challenge from the London club's owner, board members and managers - and they seemed to be drifting further and further away from their halcyon days.

Not only was the scoreline humiliating, but the way which Arsenal capitulated - conceding on Man City's first attack, being reduced to 10 men due to captain Granit Xhaka's reckless lunge, and allowing City a staggering 81 per cent of possession - also signalled deeper fault lines within the club.

Years of substandard transfer signings, then giving huge pay deals to so-so players, have robbed Arsenal of a generation of talented and hungry footballers willing to run through brick walls for the club like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp once did. 

With a fan base that has turned toxic in showering the club with abuse on social media, beleaguered manager Mikel Arteta is struggling to lift his side out of the doldrums. It may be a crisis too far for the Spaniard, on his first managerial job, to handle.

Yet, one would be hard-pressed to name an available manager who could turn things around at the speed in which the fans are demanding. A massive squad overhaul is also near impossible amid this current pandemic situation, with clubs being more prudent amid less revenue and thus less willing to buy Arsenal discards.

So the Gunners are saddled with underachieving players, an inexperienced manager, and an irate fan base, at least in the short term. It is a troubling situation for a club with such a proud history, and the only way in which they can buy more time to fix their inherent problems is to start winning.

WHAT'S NEXT: On paper, Arsenal have two winnable league matches next - at home to Norwich on 11 September and then away to Burnley the following week - before their next big game, against arch-rivals Tottenham at home. Win these three matches, and Arteta may get more time to get his team on track.

Jorginho of Chelsea battles for possession with Roberto Firmino of Liverpool.
Jorginho of Chelsea (centre) battles for possession with Roberto Firmino of Liverpool. (PHOTO: Chelsea Football Club/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

Defensive stand shows fighting spirit amid Chelsea

WHAT HAPPENED: Before the start of the season, pundits believe that Chelsea have enough firepower to contend for the EPL title this season. This belief only increased after they signed top striker Romelu Lukaku from Inter Milan to further bolster their attack.

Yet ironically, it took a sterling defensive performance against Liverpool in a 1-1 draw at Anfield for onlookers to be convinced that Chelsea could go all the way to winning the title. Down to 10 men after Reece James' red card for handling on the goal line, the Blues stopped the Reds from winning the match with superb organisation and sheer defiance. 

Such fighting spirit was often missing among Chelsea squads in recent years; they often could not grind out results when they were playing poorly. It is to manager Thomas Tuchel's credit that he has forged such togetherness so quickly since his appointment in January, and while there will be more tough tests to come, Chelsea's Anfield performance should serve as a good benchmark for the players to live up to.

Meanwhile, Liverpool have to decide if they should be looking to bring in more attacking options to break down stubborn defences, which will be a frequent occurrence at their formidable home ground this season. 

While their front trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino - coupled with a in-form Diogo Jota - remain lethal scoring threats, the manner in which Chelsea effectively smothered the Reds' attack left many to believe that Liverpool need more variety in offence for their title challenge.

It may be too late with a few hours to go before the transfer deadline, but the Reds would be wise to start their search soon before their vaunted attack becomes stale. 

WHAT'S NEXT: Chelsea have a home tie against Aston Villa after the international break, and then an intriguing clash with high-flying Tottenham. Liverpool travel to Leeds for their next league match on 12 September, before hosting Crystal Palace on 18 September.

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