It wouldn’t quite be true to say that everything was rosy at Manchester United a year ago, but they had finished second in the Premier League the previous season and had added Jadon Sancho and Raphäel Varane to the squad. The doubts around Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s management meant a serious title challenge still seemed unlikely but nobody really expected them to fall to sixth, with 16 points fewer than they had gathered the previous season.
The campaign began well enough, with a 5-1 demolition of Leeds and then four points from admittedly less-than-inspiring performances in away games at Southampton and Wolves. This seemed the familiar pattern: Solskjær’s United excelled against teams who came at them and left space for the pace of their forward line to exploit, but found it harder against teams who sat deep.
And then, in the final week of the transfer window, came the oddest of distractions: the reports that Cristiano Ronaldo, his relationship with Juventus fractured, was on the verge of joining Manchester City. At which point the United machine sprang into action – Sir Alex Ferguson, Rio Ferdinand, Bruno Fernandes, the generations coming together for one dreadful mistake – to ensure that he signed for United instead. If City had devised an operation to destabilise a club that was just beginning to look like it might conceivably re-emerge as a rival, it could hardly have executed it better.
United played poorly for much their first game against a dismal Newcastle, but Ronaldo scored twice in a 4-1 win and that was enough. Grown men wept: the prodigal son had returned. And so the Solskjær nostalgia project was derailed by an even more intense nostalgia. The frolic in past glories obscured the chaos of the present. Solskjær’s football was about sitting deep and striking on the break, but Ronaldo meant there was no pace in the forward line. The game plan disintegrated. United won just four of their following 13 games and Solskjær was sacked.
It is impossible, of course, to know how different players’ form and confidence might have been had Ronaldo not been there, although it is safe to say he has not been great for dressing-room harmony. It’s true he has scored goals – 18 in the Premier League, eight more than anybody else in the squad – but United as a whole scored 16 fewer than the previous season. While those goals often got United out of difficult situations, it’s also true that many of those situations were of Ronaldo’s making.
Would Solskjær still be in charge if Ronaldo hadn’t joined? Given United might have been able to build on what had gone before, might have qualified for this season’s Champions League, it’s certainly possible. But instead Ronaldo remains – for now – a totem of a club that, having lost faith in its capacity to plan for the future, knows only how to look back.
The face in front of the sponsors’ board changes. The tone changes. The ideas the team are trying to enact change. But the fundamental problems remain. Manchester United remain under the Glazers, and that means what the manager does is of limited significance beside the great mess of the club’s superstructure, with its multiple advisors and consultants and brains trusts, all of them feeding into a board that gets big decisions wrong over and over and over again.
Of all those errors, bringing Ronaldo back on £26.8ma year might be the most egregious. He undermined Solskjaer. Ralf Rangnick, weirdly appointed coach after a decade as a sporting director, was never going to be able to handle him. And so now Erik ten Hag has to handle the fallout.
“Sunday, the King plays,” Ronaldo posted on Instagram before last weekend’s friendly against Rayo Vallecano. But he lasted only 45 minutes and then disappeared long before the final whistle, something Ten Hag described as “unacceptable”. And this is part of the Ronaldo problem: his will to achieve perfection rarely has room for lesser considerations, such as his manager, his teammates or his club.
He wants out and is determined to force an exit, but Ronaldo is now 37 and the clubs who can afford him don’t seem to want him. This isn’t quite Madame Tussauds melting down George Best’s waxwork and turning him into Rodney Marsh, but it must be sobering for Ronaldo to realize he is no longer what he once was. And so, off the pitch as on it, his lack of movement is causing problems for the Manchester United manager.
Ronaldo, it goes without saying, is not a fit for Ten Hag’s style of play. A fresh start will be incredibly difficult if it lingers. But equally, if he goes, United’s options at centre-forward are Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, the former having started just 13 league games last season and the latter being loaned out after just two.
Ten Hag’s start has been promising. He has imposed discipline. Every pre-season there is talk that the squad is fitter than ever, but this time it seems that may be at least partially true. The ban on personal chefs feels largely symbolic, but it refocuses players’ lives on the club.
But the board has not yet given him Frenkie de Jong despite a pursuit so protracted even Dick Dastardly and Muttley might have given up by now. It has not yet delivered a right-back. Talks about signing the Slovenian forward Benjamin Sesko from Red Bull Salzburg, meanwhile, have been described as “complicated” – although that may be another way of saying United are embarrassed at potentially having to fork out £50m for a 19-year-old they could have signed three years ago for £2.5m.
A year ago, the board did deliver Ronaldo, whose celebrity mass is such that even a club as great as United ends up being drawn into his gravitational field. Ten Hag’s job, trying to remould an unbalanced squad patched together through years of pursuing wildly differing strategies, trying to re-inspire disillusioned players while coming to terms with a new coaching environment, would be hard enough anyway.
But now he has to deal with the United board’s biggest mistake and find a way, while remaining diplomatic, of getting Ronaldo out of the club to everybody’s satisfaction, of resolving a crisis that is entirely the board’s creation.