IIt wouldn’t be entirely correct to say that everything was rosy at Manchester United a year ago, but they finished second in the Premier League last season and added Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane to the squad. Doubts about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s management meant that a serious title challenge remained unlikely, but no one really expected the team to drop to sixth, with 16 points less than it collected the previous season.
The campaign started well, with Leeds losing 5-1 and then four points from less inspiring performances in matches away from Southampton and Wolverhampton. This seemed to be the familiar pattern: Solskjaer’s United excelled against the teams that came in their direction and left room for their attacking tempo to exploit, but they found it more difficult to face the teams who sat deep down.
And then, in the final week of the transfer window, came the most bizarre anomaly: reports that Cristiano Ronaldo, his relationship with Juventus, was on the verge of joining Manchester City. At that point, United’s machine got into action – Sir Alex Ferguson, Rio Ferdinand and Bruno Fernandes generations banded together for one horrific mistake – to make sure he signed for United instead. If City had devised a process to destabilize a club that was just beginning to look like a rival, it is hard to do better.
United played poorly in their first game against bad Newcastle, but Ronaldo scored twice in the 4-1 win and that was enough. So the progeny cried: the prodigal son returned. And so Solskjær’s nostalgia project was derailed by an even more intense nostalgia. The fun of past glories obscured the chaos of the present. Solskjaer’s football was all about sitting deep and shooting in the first half, but Ronaldo meant there was no speed up front. The game plan fell apart. United have won only four of their 13 matches and Solskjaer has been sacked.
It’s impossible, of course, to tell how different the look and confidence of the players would have been had Ronaldo not been around, although it’s safe to say he wouldn’t have been great at getting along in the dressing room. It’s true he has scored goals – 18 in the Premier League, eight more than anyone else in the squad – but United as a whole scored 16 fewer than the previous season. While these goals often got United out of difficult situations, it is also true that many of those situations were made by Ronaldo.
Would Solskjaer still be in charge if Ronaldo hadn’t joined? Given that United may be able to build on what’s happened before and may have qualified for the Champions League this season, it’s certainly possible. But instead Ronaldo remains – for now – an icon of a club that, having lost faith in his ability to plan for the future, knows only how to look back.
Changing the face in front of the Board of Sponsors. The tone changes. Ideas that the team is trying to activate. But the basic problems remain. Manchester United remain under Glazer, meaning that what the manager does is of limited importance besides the utter chaos of the club’s superstructure, with a multitude of advisors, advisors and brain boxes, all feeding on the board making the wrong decisions about it. Repeatedly.
Of all these errors, Ronaldo’s £26.8m-a-year return is perhaps the most egregious. Solskjaer has been undermined. Ralf Rangnick, a coach oddly appointed after a decade as athletic director, couldn’t handle it. Now Eric Ten Hag has to deal with the fallout.
“Sunday plays the king,” Ronaldo wrote on Instagram, ahead of last weekend’s friendly match against Rayo Vallecano. But it only lasted 45 minutes and then disappeared long before the final whistle, something Ten Hag called “unacceptable”. And that’s part of Ronaldo’s problem: his desire for perfection rarely has room for less considerations, like his manager, teammates or club.
He wants out and is determined to force him out, but Ronaldo is now 37 and the clubs that can afford him don’t seem to want him. This isn’t quite Madame Tussauds melting wax for George Best and turning it into Rodney Marsh, but it should be realistic for Ronaldo to realize he’s no longer what he used to be. Thus, off the field as well as on it, his lack of movement caused problems for the Manchester United manager.
Needless to say, Ronaldo does not fit Ten Hag’s style of play. The new beginning will be very difficult if he continues. But equally, should he go, United’s options at center forward are Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, with the former starting just 13 league games last season, and the latter being loaned out after just two.
Tin Hag’s start was promising. I enforce discipline. In every pre-season there is talk that the team is better than ever, but this time it looks like that may be at least partially true. The ban on personal chefs seems largely symbolic, but it refocuses players’ lives on the club.
But the board has yet to grant him Frenkie de Jong despite the protracted manhunt so that Dick Dustardley and Motley may have now given up. Not yet delivered right back. Meanwhile, talks about signing Slovenian striker Benjamin Sisko from Red Bull Salzburg have been described as “complicated” – although that might be another way of saying United are embarrassed by the prospect of paying £50m for the 19-year-old. He could have signed three years earlier for £2.5m.
A year ago, the board of directors handed over Ronaldo, whose celebrity is so numerous that even a big club like United ends up being swept away in their field of attraction. The mission of Tin Hag, trying to remake a lopsided team that has been patched together through years of following wildly different strategies, trying to re-inspire frustrated players while tackling a new training environment, will be tough enough anyway.
But now he has to deal with the biggest mistake made by United’s management and find a way, while remaining diplomatic, to get Ronaldo out of the club to everyone’s satisfaction, to solve a crisis that is entirely of the board’s making.