What next for Ronaldo at Man Utd?

Fans celebrated the news of Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United just over a year ago

On August 27, 2021, Manchester United confirmed the return of their prodigal son.

Just over 12 months later, United’s relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo has changed beyond recognition. And Erik ten Hag has to handle it very delicately.

At the King Power Stadium on September 1, the 37-year-old started on the bench and played the final 22 minutes in the 1-0 win at Leicester.

His most significant contribution was an acrobatic overhead kick that bounced away from the far post.

In five appearances so far this season, the brilliant Portuguese has managed neither a goal nor an assist.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford followed days of intense speculation, first over a move to Manchester City, before United declared their interest and Sir Alex Ferguson spoke to the player who sees the Scot as his footballing father .

The tweet in which United said ‘Welcome home Cristiano’ has been liked 1.9 million times. The club added a million more Instagram followers within two hours of the signing announcement.

Two days later, United beat Wolves away from home. Two weeks later, amid joyful scenes from the moment he arrived at Old Trafford to the second he left, Ronaldo scored twice on his debut, the 4-1 win over Newcastle propelling their new club to the top of the Premier League.

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring on his return to Manchester United
Ronaldo made a dream comeback for Manchester United, scoring twice against Newcastle at Old Trafford

Still, there were red flags ahead of Ronaldo’s return. And soon after, some began to wonder if United had done the right thing.

Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hasn’t started the 2021-22 season with the perfect team. But he was starting to get closer to his ideal team.

Jadon Sancho had been brought in as the wide, attacking player he craved. Weeks spent persuading Edinson Cavani to stay at Old Trafford came to fruition in May when the Uruguayan signed a one-year extension.

Raphael Varane had joined Real Madrid to become the latest defender to try and secure United’s leaky backline, although some questioned whether he was really the leader they needed given how long he had spent to play alongside Madrid captain Sergio Ramos.

The defensive midfielder wanted by Solskjaer hasn’t been delivered, but even City’s Pep Guardiola isn’t getting everything he wants.

The arrival of Ronaldo changed the whole dynamic. His only effective position could be that of number nine. All of a sudden, this drastically reduced the number of games Cavani was likely to play, apart from the fact that the Uruguayan had to give up his shirt number.

For someone who would have moved without Solskjaer’s intervention, it was a humbling experience. No wonder, his contribution last season was choppy.

It also meant United’s other ‘number nine’, Mason Greenwood, was moved into a wide position to compete with Sancho. By the time Greenwood became unavailable for selection due to off-field issues, he had started 16 Premier League games to Sancho’s 10.

Ronaldo couldn’t play the high-paced game that Solskjaer was looking to introduce, so a compromise in style of play was made.

Solskjaer had planned to leave Ronaldo out of his squad occasionally. However, the first time he did, against Everton on October 2, the transfer debate was huge even though it was only three days after a Champions League away game.

The Norwegian then said he had to ‘pick the right times’ to use Ronaldo. He started all seven matches thereafter until Solskjaer was sacked on November 21.

Cristiano Ronaldo shakes hands with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Ronaldo has rarely been rested by Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

The only times he remained on the bench for the rest of the Premier League campaign were at Chelsea on November 28, when Michael Carrick made the decision, and at Burnley on February 8.

Ronaldo’s appearance at Turf Moor was overshadowed by the fact that he ignored the traveling supporters at the final whistle and headed straight for the United dressing room at the other end of the pitch.

It was on April 18 that Ronaldo and his girlfriend announced the death in childbirth of their baby boy. Ronaldo played – and scored – against Arsenal the following weekend, after missing the 4-0 defeat at Liverpool. On May 7, United were beaten 4-0 at Brighton to end any hope of qualifying for this season’s Champions League.

Subsequently, Ronaldo missed last season’s final game through injury, as well as United’s pre-season tour of Thailand and Australia due to personal reasons. By the time he appeared in Old Trafford’s friendly with Rayo Vallecano on July 31, his desire to get away from United was well known.

The reasons, it was established, were career-driven. He still wants to compete for top honors. The opportunity to do that at United, it was felt, was a mirage.

Yet the expected offers did not materialize. There was one from Saudi Arabia but it was rejected. The latest rumors concerned Atletico Madrid, Napoli and Ronaldo’s first professional sports club, Sporting Lisbon. But when the deadline closed in Europe’s major leagues, Ronaldo remained at United, his own status weakened significantly compared to his return.

That Ronaldo has been on the bench for more Premier League games this season than he was for all of last and there has been barely a whisper of opposition tells its own story.

Ten Hag is in a much stronger position to face the five-time Ballon D’Or winner than Solskjaer or his interim replacement Ralf Rangnick.

Solskjaer has publicly declared his support for Ronaldo’s return. But really, he had no choice.

It was determined among United power brokers that the idea of ​​Ronaldo showing up at Manchester City was too much to accept. Even at his age, the combination of the former Real Madrid player’s production – he had finished the previous season as Serie A’s top scorer – and the power of commercial attraction was irresistible.

It never came to that, but chances are that if Solskjaer had contested the transfer, his concerns would have been ignored.

Ten Hag is in a completely different position. Rather than the Dutchman finding a system that suits Ronaldo, Ronaldo has to adapt to his. If that means appearances on the bench and starting games in the Europa League – a competition the 37-year-old has never played in – up to the World Cup, that’s how it will have to be.

Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench at Old Trafford
Cristiano Ronaldo found himself on the bench under new manager Erik Ten Hag

Chances are Ten Hag will handle the situation more subtly.

When asked after the Leicester game if it was possible that one of the greatest players of all time was about to be reduced to little player status, Ten Hag replied: “It’s is really early in the season and we have a team. We have more than 11 starting players, that’s what you see now, players now on the bench can play in one, two or three weeks.”

Ten Hag must also work to boost Ronaldo’s morale. While BBC Sport were told only the player’s exit could completely lift the negativity surrounding the club, the words were spoken in the belief that a parting of ways was possible. In the end, that didn’t happen.

Efforts to absolve Ronaldo of blame for the disastrous end to last season have been dismissed by United sources. But in truth, no one can really tell if Ronaldo was the reason United weren’t even worse than they were last season, or if he was one of the main reasons for their poor form.

But now, for the first time since arriving at Old Trafford as a raw teenager, Ronaldo has to prove himself.

Can he be a team player, something his individual genius meant he never had to worry about too much for so long?

Can he maintain the facade of supporting his teammates from the bench?

At 37, can Ronaldo score again for a team that values ​​pressure on the opposition?

There are 10 weeks left until the Premier League break for the World Cup. It won’t start again until December 26, a week before the January transfer window opens.

Most people, probably including the man himself, didn’t expect Ronaldo to spend this time as a Manchester United player.

How he handles this will be fascinating.

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What next for Ronaldo at Man Utd?

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