Erik ten Hag could not have accommodated an ageing forward whose decision to leave should aid a huge rebuilding job
Ralf Rangnick had been Manchester United manager for two days when he observed to a colleague that he couldn’t play with Cristiano Ronaldo, but he certainly couldn’t play without him – and that is the dilemma any manager of United will have.
There remained at times something vaguely glorious about Ronaldo last season. He was still capable of narrative-shifting late goals. He still looked the same, a little slower perhaps, but his body was evidence of a lifetime’s dedication. Though much had been lost, much abided; it was still at times possible to believe that some noble work could yet be done.
But the problem was those escapades, those glimmers of what he once was, came against Atalanta, Norwich or Tottenham in one of their bad phases. It was enough, perhaps, to persuade those who wanted to believe, but Ronaldo in his second United coming has been a diminished presence. There’s no shame in that: he is 37, way beyond the age at which most forwards have decided the Premier League is no longer for them.
He did score 18 league goals last season, eight more than any of his teammates. At a club that has become increasingly obsessed by nostalgia during a decade-long decline, he is a symbol of a more profitable time (and in his return, perhaps, also a symbol of a less decisive, less successful era). He is a celebrity. As United’s marketing people might say, he raises brand awareness.
And so in that sense the news on Saturday that Ronaldo wants to leave came as blow. It made clear that his return, which cost a £20m fee and £500,000 a week in wages, has been a failure. It’s easy to portray that as another example of United lurching into chaos. But getting rid of Ronaldo is also probably the most important step in rebuilding United. Erik ten Hag has said that he was keen to work with Ronaldo but we can safely assume he was being diplomatic. If Ronaldo does leave, freeing up the budget and making it easier to impose the new manager’s philosophy, it will surely come as a relief.
Ten Hag is a classic Ajax coach; he plays hard-pressing football. Excluding centre-backs, Ronaldo attempted fewer pressures than any other outfield player in Europe’s top five leagues last season. Those two details do not – cannot – go together. There is a fundamental disconnect that cannot be reconciled. No coach who wants to play modern football can accommodate Ronaldo. Perhaps a more reactive manager like Diego Simeone or a star-whisperer like Carlos Ancelotti could get something out of him (although you suspect Simeone’s demand for self-sacrifice would soon create issues) but no pressing coach could.
But it’s not just a matter of style. Ronaldo is so big he dwarfs any club he plays for. Even Manchester United became FC Ronaldo. Everything is sublimated to him. There are numerous stories of him last season disrupting drills on shape because he found them boring, insisting practice should be fun. He clashed with Harry Maguire over the captaincy. When Rangnick left him out for the Manchester derby, he returned to Portugal for treatment on his hip flexor and so, even in his absence, the story became about Ronaldo.
Any club for which he plays develops an unhealthy dependency. He is a brilliant goalscorer, so you play to his strengths so he can score goals. The problem is that ends up undermining the general pattern of play, makes it harder to create the structures that give a team control, and the side becomes predictable. Ronaldo’s goalscoring interventions protected United from an even worse campaign last season, but if he hadn’t been there they may not have needed them.
Two obvious problems remain. The first is that it’s not obvious who will sign Ronaldo now. With the possible exception of Paris Saint-Germain – who seem oddly enthused by the prospect of creating a waxwork gallery of players who were good in La Liga seven years ago – no European club who could afford him plays the sort of football that suits Ronaldo. Even his old club Real Madrid, never usually shy of a 30-something star, may think in the light of Karim Benzema’s form that they have moved on.
And the second is who replaces him. United, for a variety of reasons, are short of credible forwards. Ten Hag is thought to favour a move for Ajax’s 22-year-old Brazilian winger Antony. While in isolation he may prove to be a very good signing, there must be some alarm about how many Eredivisie players Ten Hag seems to want to accumulate. Bringing in a load of blokes your manager knows smacks of David Moyes at Sunderland, not a state-of-the-art scouting network.
But issues were always going to crop up when the time came for Ronaldo to leave. Awkward as they may be, they are part of the solution. The positive for Ten Hag is that this move has come from Ronaldo; it is not a decision for which the coach will be held responsible. What matters now is for the break to come as swiftly and as cleanly as possible, so he can begin to build the new age without the complication of an ageing and anachronistic icon.