As reintroductions go, Cristiano Ronaldo’s as a Manchester United player after 12 years away from the club was as emphatic as they come, writes Graham Ruthven.
The Portuguese forward scored twice in a 4-1 win over Newcastle United as the Old Trafford crowd welcomed back a player they surely never thought they’d see in red again.
Since then, though, questions have been asked of Ronaldo’s role at United. The 36-year-old has been criticised for his inability, or unwillingness, to press from the front, something that was a problem under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and an even bigger problem under Ralf Rangnick, the so-called ‘Grandfather of Gegenpressing.’
Ronaldo has been used as a frontman in a 4-2-3-1 formation and as one half of a front two in a 4-2-2-2 shape. While the Portuguese’s scoring record (14 goals in 21 games) has remained typically high, there is a growing sense that Manchester United are a generally poorer team for his presence.
This has led to numerous reports that Ronaldo is already considering his future at Old Trafford. The 36-year-old signed a two-year contract only five months ago, but he is believed to have held talks with his agent Jorge Mendes in order to explore what his options might be at the end of the season.
PSG could reignite their interest in Cristiano Ronaldo after he held crisis talks about his Man Utd future, according to reports in France ????
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) January 11, 2022
Manchester United spent so many years longing for the return of one of their best ever players that the prospect of Ronaldo leaving again after just one season might hurt, but rational thought suggests they should be open to the idea. In fact, if Ronaldo wants to force an exit from Old Trafford this summer, United should let him do so.
If Rangnick’s appointment as interim manager, and consultant beyond the end of the season, hints at the direction United will take post-Solskjaer, Ronaldo will be a stylistic and tactical misfit beyond the summer. Allowing the 36-year-old to leave would give Rangnick’s successor, whoever that may be, more freedom to rebuild the team in their own image.
Financially, there would also be a benefit to getting Ronaldo off the wage bill with the Portuguese international believed to be on $800,000-a-week. His $40m annual salary makes him the highest-paid player currently at Old Trafford and has warped Manchester United’s pay structure. Ronaldo’s exit would free up salary space for new signings to be made and make it easier for United to fit those new signings into a new wage hierarchy.
The omission of Ronaldo from the Manchester United matchday squad for this week’s FA Cup tie initially added to the speculation around the player’s future, although Rangnick later clarified his absence was injury-related. “I don’t think it’s anything serious,” the German coach said. “He’s told me that he’s had that problem for the last couple of days. Again, in a cup game when you can play 120 minutes, I thought it would be better to not take any risks.”
Cristiano Ronaldo is not in Manchester United's squad to face Aston Villa in the FA Cup ????⚫️ pic.twitter.com/MRaIrxdHaC
— GOAL (@goal) January 10, 2022
Ronaldo certainly can’t be solely blamed for what has unfolded at Manchester United this season, but the Portuguese’s presence has complicated things for a club desperate for the glory days to return nearly nine years after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. Romance has very quickly given way to a sense of malaise.
United have good players, but there is an undeniable imbalance to their squad. This is most evident in the middle of the pitch where Rangnick lacks the central operators to truly make his favoured 4-2-2-2 shape work. There is, however, a structural issue in the final third too and Ronaldo has become a big part of that.
Under Solskjaer, Ronaldo was signed to be the final piece of a project that had been three seasons in the making. However, when the foundations of that project were found to be unstable Ronaldo’s purpose at the club was undermined. Now United are at the start of a partial reconstruction, if not a full rebuild, Ronaldo looks to be the wrong man for the job.