Cristiano Ronaldo’s fanfare homecoming to Old Trafford, when the Portuguese star netted two goals in a dominant four-one victory over Newcastle, will feel like a distant memory for Manchester United fans. Instead of being the last piece in the jigsaw to elevate the club back to its dominant past, a season of instability and discontent culminated in the Red Devils’ worst ever points tally since the start of the Premier League.
Far from his illustrious best, the 37-year-old managed to score 24 goals in 38 appearances, with a last-minute equaliser against Atalanta and his hat-trick against Tottenham being the standout highlights. But away from the impressive statistics and moments of individual brilliance, his return to England cannot be characterised as a success.
Manchester United’s attack simply did not need the addition of Ronaldo. The youthful and agile front line of Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial, and Daniel James, alongside the experience and know-how of Edison Cavani, had left the Red Devils second in the 2020/21 season.
Only Manchester City scored more goals. Concerns and fears of how Ronaldo would fit into this attack came to fruition from the start. The fast-paced, direct attack that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was trying to develop was not possible with Ronaldo in the side.
By October, no starting forward in the Premier League had made fewer pressures than Ronaldo, in addition to Harry Maguire being the only outfield player for Manchester United running less per 90 minutes. Consequently, similar difficulties occurred in attempting to develop a coherent attack under the next manager Ralf Rangnick — the architect of modern ‘gegenpressing’.
By no means was Ronaldo responsible for the failures of Solskjaer and Rangnick, with his vital goals preventing even more embarrassment. However, last season made it blatantly clear he does not complement Manchester United’s attack and there is no reason to believe anything will be different next season under Erik ten Hag’s regime of high pressing and fluid attacking transition, which was so successful at Ajax.
Ronaldo’s desire to leave and his potential exit should, therefore, be treated not with derision and anger; but rather with an appreciation of his goals and flashes of brilliance, including an acknowledgment that for ten Hag to fully implement his play-style and achieve long term success, the Portuguese star will not play an integral part.
Nobody should begrudge Ronaldo for his dissatisfaction. The club he left in 2009 is unrecognisable. Gone are the days of Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Roy Keane — led by Sir Alex Ferguson — ensuring success and high standards both on and off the pitch. Laziness, cliques and unprofessionalism summarise the club he returned to, with the fight for a Europa League position finishing a shameful season in 2021-22.
Such a degree of failure and humiliation is entirely incompatible with Ronaldo’s career and image. Fans, of course, have the right to expect players to respect their contracts, but Ronaldo’s frustrations only echo what Manchester United supporters have been saying and protesting about for years. Ronaldo at Old Trafford will always be remembered for the glory days of Premier League dominance and European success. As long as his exit does not become unpleasant and toxic, those memories will remain.
The bottom line is that going forward under ten Hag, Manchester United need players committed to his vision and the club. Over the past decade, too many players have not shown the effort and dedication required. Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku both expressed a desire to leave numerous times, whilst Alexis Sanchez recently admitted he wanted to return to Arsenal soon after his arrival in the North West.
Losing Ronaldo’s goals puts pressure on the club in finding a replacement, but for any sustainable glory, Manchester United need players to be committed and enthusiastic about returning success. Supporters who sympathise with Ronaldo should also understand that keeping him only reinforces the issues that have plagued the club since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.
The future for Ronaldo is less clear. His agent, Jorge Mendes, has reportedly touted his client across Europe in search of a strong Champions League club. Yet, due to European clubs either not being prepared to meet the financial requirements of such a deal or fear of unbalancing their teams, no clubs have made significant moves to sign the forward.
This saga is not what ten Hag needs on the eve of a new season that is intended to be a fresh start; but, unless Ronaldo can be convinced Manchester United can challenge for silverware, it seems likely this story will drag on until the close of the transfer window. Their supporters will hope for a peaceful break which will allow both the memories of Ronaldo to remain intact, along with the hopes and expectations of a novel era at Old Trafford.
Image: Ludovic Péron via Flickr