If Cristiano Ronaldo leaves Manchester United this summer, as seems to be his preference, his second spell at the club must be seen as a disaster. It’s a remarkable indictment of United’s role in the saga, given that Ronaldo, in all honesty, really didn’t do much wrong.
Ronaldo produced precisely what the signing of a 36-year-old Ronaldo always promised: he finished as the Premier League’s third top scorer and scored six goals in seven Champions League appearances. At times he has single-handedly won games for United – most obviously with hat-tricks in 3-2 wins over Norwich City and Tottenham Hotspur.
On the other hand, Ronaldo’s link game isn’t great, he doesn’t have the physical ability to press constantly and everything ends up being based around him to the detriment of the team.
At this point, everyone understood that starting Ronaldo is effectively like starting with a one-goal lead but a one-man disadvantage. United took that gamble, and it was up to their managers to structure the squad to maximize their strengths and hide their weaknesses. In the right kind of system, it might have worked.
But it’s worth pointing out the retrograde nature of this – United signed Ronaldo when they didn’t need a striker and look likely to sell him when they do.
To recap, the weirdest thing about signing Ronaldo was that they had several good options anyway. You may wonder if Ronaldo could have fit in with Pep Guardiola’s style, but in purely positional terms it made sense that Manchester City were looking for a better striker after the loss of Sergio Aguero. They moved for Harry Kane, then Ronaldo, before deciding that, with no other world-class options on offer last summer, they would sit back and wait for Erling Haaland.
United, realistically, pounced on Ronaldo because he couldn’t stand seeing a club legend join City. Like their faith in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, it was about the brand rather than the tactical requirements of the team. Sir Alex Ferguson got involved. Rio Ferdinand claimed credit. United had essentially become an old boys’ club. Signing Ronaldo has delighted most fans, and ultimately it’s good enough for those responsible.
But Ronaldo didn’t have an obvious place at this point. United had the country’s most talented young striker in Mason Greenwood, who had scored in each of the three league games before Ronaldo’s signing.
They had Edinson Cavani. In his first season he started 13 league games, came on as a substitute in 13 games and was unused in 12 games, which is an ideal balance for a plan B, especially since he has scored once every 137 minutes. He and Greenwood would roughly share the job.
They had Marcus Rashford, whose performance had plummeted but still scored 28 goals in his previous two league campaigns, and Anthony Martial, who contributed with a goal early in the season against Everton.
It was a wide variety of options: a young number 9. A veteran back-up. Two other options that could also play loose. And that’s not even including United’s top scorer in 2020-21 Bruno Fernandes, whose tally was increased by penalties and whose level of tactical discipline is questionable, but who justified a free role with his goals and assists.
And now, after Ronaldo, none of that applies. Greenwood has not been available for selection since last year. Cavani left. Martial left on loan and most fans would be happy if he didn’t return permanently. Rashford’s form has now been terrible for 18 months. Fernandes became more peripheral when it was all based on Ronaldo, and the team couldn’t afford two players effectively playing free roles.
All of this means that now United really need someone who can do two things like Ronaldo: lead the line and score goals. Ideally, they want someone who can press and who can also link play. But there aren’t many of those players around – and rival clubs have been springing up for Europe’s most in-demand strikers.
Although he doesn’t say so publicly, you sense Ten Hag won’t be too devastated if Ronaldo moves on – he doesn’t exactly embody the classic Dutch principles that made Ten Hag so successful at Ajax. Managers who move from this club to other European giants often find it difficult to adapt, especially in terms of relationships with big-name superstars.
And United and Ten Hag might be better off pulling a leaf from City’s book and sitting out for a year than making a desperate lunge for a striker who’s not right. Ten Hag has proven capable of creating a side that thrives without a classic No.9 – in the 2019 Champions League semi-final he used playmaker Dusan Tadic up front. He also hopes to revive Rashford.
Ronaldo’s first departure from the club allowed Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and – briefly – Nani to step up and make up for his absence, while Solskjaer’s decision to sell Romelu Lukaku saw major improvement for Rashford and Martial, although it is doubtful that they are in a position to do so again.
The fans will demand a Ronaldo replacement, with some justification, and United will feel compelled to act. They will now spend the next few weeks desperately looking for a replacement for a player they didn’t even need last year.
(Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)