Just 12 months on and United’s relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo has faded beyond all recognition. And Erik ten Hague needs to handle it very delicately.
At the King Power Stadium on September 1, the 37-year-old started on the bench and came on for the last 22 minutes of a 1-0 win at Leicester.
His most important contribution was an acrobatic overhead kick that bounced wide of the far post.
The prolific Portuguese has not managed a goal or assist in five appearances so far this season.
Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford followed days of intense speculation, first about a move to Manchester City, before United announced their interest and Sir Alex Ferguson spoke to the player who made the Scot one of his own. The footballing father believes.
United’s tweet announcing “Welcome home Cristiano” was liked 1.9 million times. The club added an extra million followers on Instagram within two hours of announcing the signing.
Two days later United beat Wolves away from home. Two weeks later, amid happy scenes from his arrival at Old Trafford to the moment he left, Ronaldo scored twice on his debut, a 4–1 win over Newcastle that lifted his new club to the Premier League. Made it to the top.
Yet there were red flags before Ronaldo’s return. And not long after, some were beginning to wonder if United had done the right thing.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did not go into the 2021-22 season with a perfect squad. But he was getting closer to his ideal team.
Jadon Sancho was brought in as the wide, attacking player he craved. Weeks of convincing Edinson Cavani to stay at Old Trafford came to fruition in May when the Uruguayan signed a one-year extension.
Raphael Varane joined from Real Madrid to become the latest defender to try and shore up United’s leaky backline, although some wondered if he was actually the leader they needed. He spent time playing with Madrid captain Sergio Ramos.
Defensive midfielder Solskjaer was not wanted but City’s Pep Guardiola doesn’t get everything he wants either.
The arrival of Ronaldo changed the whole movement. His only effective position could be as a number nine. In a blow, that significantly reduced the number of games Cavani was likely to play, quite apart from the fact that the Uruguayan had to give away his shirt number.
For someone who would have walked away without Solskjaer’s intervention, it was a humbling experience. Not surprisingly, his contribution last season was a fit.
It also meant that United’s other “number nine”, Mason Greenwood, was moved into a wide position to counter Sancho. With Greenwood unavailable for selection due to off-field issues, he started 16 Premier League games compared to Sancho’s 10.
Ronaldo could not play the high-tempo game that Solskjaer wanted to introduce, so the style of play was compromised.
Solskjaer had plans to leave Ronaldo out of his team at times. However, the first time he did so, on 2 October against Everton, the debate surrounding the move was intense even though it was just three days after the Champions League away game.
The Norwegian then said he had to “choose the right moments” to use Ronaldo. He then started all seven matches until Solskjaer was sacked on 21 November.
He was only left on the bench for the remainder of the Premier League campaign at Chelsea on 28 November, when Michael Carrick took over, and Burnley on 8 February.
Ronaldo’s appearance at Turf Moor was overshadowed by the fact that he ignored the traveling fans at the final whistle and walked straight to the United dressing room at the other end of the pitch.
It was on April 18 that Ronaldo and his girlfriend announced the death of their child in childbirth. Ronaldo played – and scored – against Arsenal the following weekend after missing the 4-0 defeat at Liverpool. On 7 May, United were beaten 4–0 at Brighton to end any hopes of qualifying for that season’s Champions League.
Subsequently, Ronaldo missed the final game of last season through injury, as well as United’s pre-season tours to Thailand and Australia due to personal reasons. When he appeared at Old Trafford on 31 July with Rayo Vallecano, his desire to leave United was known.
The reasons, it was established, were career-based. He still wants to compete for major honours. The chance to do so at United, it felt, was a mirage.
Yet the expected offers did not materialize. One was from Saudi Arabia but was rejected. The latest rumors are linked to Atletico Madrid, Napoli and Ronaldo’s first professional sports club, Sporting Lisbon. But when the deadline closed in Europe’s big leagues, Ronaldo remained at United, his position greatly weakened from where he returned.
That Ronaldo has been on the bench for more Premier League games this season than he has been in the whole of last and his own story-telling has barely been a voice of dissent.
Ten Hague is in a far stronger position to deal with the five-time Ballon d’Or winner than Solskjaer or his interim replacement Ralf Rangnick.
Solskjaer publicly declared his support for Ronaldo’s return. But really, he had no choice.
It was agreed among United’s power brokers that Manchester City was too much to entertain the thought of Ronaldo’s arrival. Even at his age, the former Real Madrid man’s combination of production – he finished last season as the top scorer in Serie A – and commercial pulling power was irresistible.
It never came but chances are, if Solskjaer had challenged the transfer, his concerns would have been ignored.
Ten Hague is in a completely different position. Instead of the Dutchman finding a system that suits Ronaldo, Ronaldo will have to fit into it. If that means coming off the bench and starting games in the Europa League – a competition the 37-year-old has never played in – until the World Cup, so be it.
Chances are that Ten Hague will handle the situation more delicately.
Asked after the Leicester game if it was possible for one of the greatest players of all time to be given the status of a bit-part player, ten Hague replied: “It’s really the start of the season and we’ve got a squad. “We have more players than that. The starting 11 players, what you see now, the players on the bench now can play in one, two or three weeks.”
Ten Hague should also work to lift Ronaldo’s spirits. While told that the negativity surrounding the club could only be completely ended by the player’s exit, the words were spoken in the belief that they could part ways. In the end, it didn’t happen.
Attempts to exonerate Ronaldo from all charges stemming from last season’s disastrous end have been rejected by United sources. But in reality, no one can still know whether Ronaldo was the reason United were worse than they finished last season, or whether he was a major reason for their poor form.
Now though, for the first time since arriving at Old Trafford as a raw teenager, Ronaldo has to prove himself.
Could he be a team player, his individual brilliance meaning he didn’t have to worry too much for so long?
Can he keep up the facade of being supportive of his teammates from the bench?
Can Ronaldo, at 37, once again score goals for a team that places a premium on stifling the opposition?
There are 10 weeks until the Premier League breaks for the World Cup. It doesn’t start again until December 26, a week before the January transfer window opens.
Most people, that man included, did not expect Ronaldo to have the time he did as a Manchester United player.