Manchester United and Ronaldo: An odd couple who may have to work it out

Jul 19, 2022 08:20 PM IST

If there are no takers for him yet it is also because top clubs don’t play the way they would get the best out of this champion

The refrain in Peter Sarstedt’s 1969 hit single, “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?” says, “Tell me the thoughts that surround you/I want to look inside your head, yes I do.”

Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates a goal.(Action Images via Reuters) PREMIUM
Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates a goal.(Action Images via Reuters)

Since Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t speaking his mind, yet, everyone, from Erik ten Hag to the player’s 468 million followers on Instagram (no one on the planet has more), would be wanting to look inside his head. Because in June, Ronaldo was “excited” and “very happy” with Manchester United’s new manager. Weeks later he wanted out.

Also Read | ‘Cristiano Ronaldo is an absolute top player in our squad’: Erik ten Hag clarifies star player's position at Man United

The report of Ronaldo, 38 in February, being disengaged has caught Manchester United by surprise. They were addressing problems in central defence and central midfield in the summer window, not looking for a new focal point in attack.

With a year to run on his contract and the option for a third season, Manchester United were counting on Ronaldo at a time Edinson Cavani has gone, Mason Greenwood is unavailable and Marcus Rashford is seeking to rediscover form. Rather, they are counting on Ronaldo to stay. “We will construct our team around goalscorers,” Ten Hag said in Australia on Monday underlining again how “as a top player” Ronaldo can “contribute.”

No takers yet

News of Ronaldo’s disenchantment sparked a buzz but proof that football has moved on lay in how things have gone quiet over the player who costs Manchester United a reported £500,000 in weekly wages.

Chelsea look to have piped down after an initial spurt in excitement. They have Kai Havertz, Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Timo Werner and have bought Raheem Sterling for £47.5 million. Bayer Munich, despite knowing that Robert Lewandowski would leave, had CEO Oliver Kahn say that Ronaldo doesn’t “fit into our philosophy.” Paris St Germain have got on loan Hugo Ekitike, the big goalscorer from Reims, so wouldn’t be keen on another superstar. And back in the Champions League, Napoli owner Aurelio de Laurentis had said this in the context of whether he would want Cavani: “Signing a goalkeeper at 34, 35, 36 is fine. Signing a striker not.”

This despite Ronaldo’s ability to considerably boost a club’s commercial prospects, something no side can ignore after Covid-19 hit finances. Juventus upped their profit from £123 million in the year before Ronaldo (2017-18) to £150m in 2019-20. Their kit sponsor Adidas had to revise a deal worth £19.8 million to £43.8m and Jeep had to pay almost £25million more to stay on their shirt front. Manchester United’s figures are not known yet but their Twitter following increased by five million after Ronaldo joined and their Instagram account swelled by nearly 16 million.

And Ronaldo’s performance has been top notch. He scored 18 Premier League goals, the third highest in the competition, and had six goals in seven Champions League games. Actually, scratch that. Top notch it would be for most but 2021-22 was the first time since 2007-08 that Ronaldo has got so few league goals. Since then, he has scored at least 21 league goals in 12 seasons and 30 in seven. For almost 18 years, he continues to keep the average of a goal every 180 minutes. And his incredible fitness means Ronaldo has played 30 or more games in all of his last four seasons, 2456 minutes in 21-22 being the least.

Champions League highs

The Champions League remains a coveted competition and is ostensibly why he wants out of Old Trafford. “The high point of my career is winning the Champions League. No one will ever erase that from my memory,” he has said. Ronaldo has won it five times and can you blame him if, like Roger Federer at the Wimbledon Centre Court, he wants it one more time.

If he doesn’t play among Europe’s elite this term it would be a first in 20 seasons. Beginning with the one at the near post against Roma in his 27th Champions League game, Ronaldo has the most goals (140; 15 more than Lionel Messi), has played the most games (182), has scored the maximum goals in the knockout rounds (67), most goals in the final (4), most goals in a season (17; 2013-14), most winners after the 90th minute (3), has been the top scorer six times and has scored in 11 successive games.

In the Champions League, Ronaldo has struck from the left, from the centre, with shots and free-kicks from range, with overhead kick (v Juventus in 2018-19) and headers where he seemed suspended in air or where he flew in to connect (v Ajax in 2018-19). He has been involved in slick moves like against Ajax in 2011-12 where Mesut Oezil, Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema combined in a counter-attack. There have been cheeky ones such as dink over the goalie (Ajax again) and opportunistic goals (too many to list).

So, no jaunt in Saudi Arabia for him even it means spurning £233.23m. Gareth Bale may move to USA, Xavi may have ended his days in Qatar, Andres Iniesta in Japan but Ronaldo is convinced he belongs to football’s toughest competition. This despite the stated aim of winning a Champions League with Juventus ended at quarter-final or below and in the round of 16 last March with Manchester United.

A pressing problem

Is that why there no takers yet? Could be. His jaw-dropping wages don’t help. Nor does the change in approach in clubs aspiring to win Champions League.

Influenced by Ralf Rangnick who in turn inspired Juergen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and everybody at the Red Bull stable and Pep Guardiola adding layers to the possession game that wowed the world in the late aughts, football’s changed. Forwards who don’t press – with 6.7 pressures per 90, Ronaldo is at the bottom 1% of the 21-22 Premier League– don’t fit into this narrative which is big on a collective, cohesive show of energy.

Also with Ronaldo around, attacks have to go through him. Not only does it make teams more predictable, it means more goals for him but less for his team. Last season, Ronaldo took 21% of all Manchester United shots, the maximum. It was the same at Juventus where his number in 2020-21 was 28%. Manchester United scored 57 goals in 2021-22; it was 73 in the season prior. Before Ronaldo, Juventus won Serie A with 86 goals. In 2018-19, they retained it scoring 70 goals.

“I think Juventus lost the DNA of being a team. We reached the Championship League final in 2017 because we were a side full of experience but above all we were a single unit…We lost that with Ronaldo,” Gianluigi Buffon had said.

Through most of Ronaldo’s career, there have been players who have done the running and the dropping off to link up play for him. Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney, Park Ji-sung, Benzema, Paulo Dybala have been crucial to the goals Ronaldo scored and the success his teams had.

Ronaldo will still be very useful for a team that plays to his strengths but there aren’t too many who do that. Real Madrid do but will they add another player in his late 30s especially when they have begun rebuilding and when Benzema is in such imperious form? Inability to fit Ronaldo in cost Massimo Allegri, Maurizio Sarri, Andrea Pirlo and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer jobs and though Ragnick didn’t lose his, he didn’t distinguish himself either.

For now, Ronaldo and Manchester United are an odd couple who must make this marriage work. This will be the first time Ronaldo is needed to rebuild a team and if he can do it at a club whose value, according to Alex Ferguson, he knows it may end up being as satisfying as another Champions League title.

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    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata with over two decades as a sports journalist. He writes mainly on football.

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