Atletico Madrid draw raises questions over the roles of Cristiano Ronaldo & Paul Pogba at Manchester United

The Red Devils’ first-half set-up was flawed again in Madrid, and the last few performances raise questions about two star players.

Manchester United failed to impress in Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid, and produced another scrappy display where they were unable to dictate the flow of proceedings for 90 minutes.

It’s been a common theme just how easily sides have managed to play through the Red Devils this season, but for all those criticisms, United have been more efficient at creating goalscoring opportunities of late.

Yet at the Wanda Metropolitano, United’s creators in chief Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernanedes misplaced too many passes and found it difficult to find time and space against the industrious Atletico midfield. Meanwhile, full-backs Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw didn’t offer much on the front foot.

But there was another issue with United, who looked rigid in their build-up play while also lacking sharpness and directness at times. Much of this was down to the output of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ronaldo was clearly frustrated giants Atletico. Credit: Getty.

Is Ronaldo holding United back?

United’s showing in Madrid could not have been in more direct contrast to the performances of the other English sides in the Champions League over the last few weeks.

Manchester City amazed in Lisbon, Liverpool came away from the San Siro with a win, while Chelsea made light work of Lille. Between them, the trio won their matches by a combined 9-0.

But United are in a very different position, and in truth their performance on Wednesday should come as little surprise to those who watched them in the group stages, where, despite finishing first with a game to spare, the Red Devils were second best in almost all of their matches.

What got them across the line were the goals of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese striker netted six in five during the autumn, including the winners against Villarreal and Atalanta.

Ronaldo excelled in group stages. Credit: Getty.

But as the knockout rounds begin, a platform where perhaps Ronaldo has produced the greatest feats of his career, he’s performing at a very different level.

United’s No.7 now has scored just once in his last nine games for United and against Atletico was a peripheral figure. Ronaldo had only 36 touches all night against the club he’s scored most often against, and only Jadon Sancho, who was replaced in the latter stages, had fewer from United’s outfield players.

But Ronaldo also didn’t produce any shots on target, complete any key passes, win a single aerial duel or carry out any dribbles. In reality, he offered nothing as United searched for a way back into the game, and the 37-year-old seemed to spend the majority of the game moaning or gesticulating at the referee and team-mates.

When United signed Ronaldo last summer they knew what sort of player was returning to Old Trafford: an immobile target man, who offers little in the way of build-up play. But recently, he has actively limited the Red Devils’ opportunities to attack.

Ronaldo spent most of the game playing directly up against Atletico’s three centre-backs, and sandwiched in behind three opposition midfielders. There were just no passing routes into the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.

But Ronaldo is now incapable of moving out of that centre-forward role and his static presence gave Fernandes and Pogba nothing to aim for when in possession. Even on the rare occasion Ronaldo did drop deep, he offered little in terms of link-up play or forming attacking moves.

This is, again, in contrast to how the other English sides operated in the Champions League last-16 first legs, with City perfecting their striker-less super system again, while Liverpool played Diogo Jota and then Roberto Firmino through the middle, neither of whom can be considered a classic centre-forward.

Chelsea’s weekend Romelu Lukaku woes saw them opt with Kai Havertz up top at Stamford Bridge, and they looked fluid in the forward areas all night. But this just isn’t an option for United at present, especially with Edinson Cavani injured.

While Ronaldo may have been the saviour in the group stages of the Champions League, Wednesday’s showing outlines just how much he’s hampering United at present, and it’s an issue they must try and remedy in the summer transfer window.

Can Fernandes & Pogba play together?

Much of the post-match analysis centred around how Ralf Rangnick got his substitutions just right in Madrid, much as he did at the weekend at Elland Road.

Goalscorer Anthony Elanga also took the plaudits for his late equaliser, but it was actually the introduction of Nemanja Matic that helped United wrestle back some control against Atletico.

He came on for Paul Pogba around the midway point of the second half, a similar time to when Rangnick withdrew the Frenchman in the win over Leeds United. From there, United managed to quell Atletico’s attack more effectively, with Matic cutting the passing lanes and Fred adding more energy from an advanced area.

United struggled to get the best out of Pogba and Ronaldo against Atletico. Credit: Getty.

For all the talent and creativity Pogba unquestionably adds to the team, it is alarming that two games in a row the Red Devils have seemed more assured after his withdrawal. The issue centres around whether both he and Bruno Fernandes can operate in the middle of the park alongside a holding player such as Scott McTominay and Fred.

This isn’t a new problem for United, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer often deployed Pogba at left wing in order to fit both him and the similarly attack-minded Fernandes into the team.

Rangnick just hasn’t worked out how to best construct his midfield, and while there have been improvements in recent weeks, opponents are still experiencing too much joy through United’s centre.

Clashes such as this weekend’s against Watford should be easily wrapped up when playing with a midfield three of Fred, Pogba and Fernandes, but upcoming fixtures against City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool over the next month may not prove so suitable for the trio.

Either Rangnick must find a way to play with both Fernandes and Pogba in midfield, or one, likely Pogba, must make way.