Manchester United’s international players returned to pre-season training on Monday morning ahead of flying to Bangkok on Friday for the first stage of a pre-season tour taking in games in Thailand, Australia and Norway.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah are the main images used to promote United’s game against Liverpool in Bangkok next Tuesday, the biggest stars of England’s two biggest clubs.
Salah has signed a new contract to settle his future while Ronaldo was not at training and told the club it was for a family reason. The club accepted his explanation, but his absence only fuels rumours of his departure after sources close to the player said he wanted to leave United on Saturday.
United are adamant that they have no intention of selling their No 7 and that their best-paid player still has a year left on his contract, but in the smoke and mirrors world of football, where there are often at least two versions of the truth, fans sense something is amiss.
Ronaldo leaving will not hurt fans like it did in 2009, but then the club is nothing like as powerful as they were then, when United were the reigning world champions.
Ronaldo is 37 and, while still effective as a top-level footballer, the man who provided United’s greatest moments last season when he was by a distance the club’s top scorer, the majority of United fans would not be too concerned if he departed.
Ronaldo is both a blessing and a curse for United, easily the biggest name at the club, one who made his own rules on issues like when he wanted to speak to the media, one managers indulge, but his recruitment was also typical of United’s under the previous leading executive Ed Woodward.
In April 2021, United were linked to Ronaldo – which was news to United who thought that all the speculation was being driven by one C Ronaldo who wanted out of Juventus and knew there were few suitors for his vast wages.
On August 31, 2021, just before the summer transfer window closed, United signed Ronaldo. This was not a long-planned signing, more a piece of spontaneous opportunism based on his commercial as much as his football numbers.
The signing was news to all those on the football side of United who’d have to work with him every day. Woodward knew United could get the player and worked those numbers to show the owning Glazer family it would make commercial sense.
He had support: Sir Alex Ferguson no less felt it would be a travesty if he went to Manchester City, who were also being linked to him, just as they’d been linked to several players United ended up signing from Alexis Sanchez to Fred and Harry Maguire.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was happy to accept another striker option – one of the greatest ever players whose statistics were still phenomenal.
Fans embraced the signing, tickets for Ronaldo’s home return against Newcastle United in September were the hardest to come by for the whole season and fans loudly sang Viva Ronaldo, the iconic terrace song that took off in Rome in 2008 when he was on his way to becoming United’s first Ballon d’Or winner since George Best 40 years earlier.
Fans hoped he would be the harbinger of a brighter future after the storm of the post-Ferguson years, the talisman who could help United move up from second to first. He justified the hype that day with two goals, but his side had still looked rocky for large parts of a 4-1 win and Solskjaer’s system changed.
United went from having 55.6 per cent of possession in games in 20-21 to 52.1 per cent last season, but for a few short weeks, Ronaldo-mania took over Planet United.
Away fans wanted to see him, United fans too. United won four and drew one of their opening five games, shirts with Ronaldo’s name on eclipsed those of every other player put together and he started off on a path towards an impressive 24 goals in all competitions.
There were times in the season when you felt that United’s Twitter account had a daily obligation to tweet about Ronaldo, however mundane the subject, because it would attract huge levels of interaction, but on the pitch he delivered when so few of his teammates did.
On the football side, Ronaldo’s arrival meant United’s coaches felt they had to rip up their plan for the season when it was already under way to accommodate Ronaldo, but he was worth it.
He scored in all five of the Champions League group games he played in, including late, great winners against Villarreal and Atalanta. Without them, it’s doubtful United would have got out of the group, but would United have looked so poor in those games without a near static centre forward?
One opposing manager whose side played United’s last season opined in private that they were easier to plan against with Ronaldo, but that he was also capable of things no other player on the pitch was. Ronaldo scored against his team.
When United did and played an Atletico Madrid side he’d been so effective against with Real Madrid, he was ineffective, just as United were ineffective as a functioning team last season, far less than the sum of their parts. United’s future is about better management, coaching and not only individual names and stellar transfers to sate transfer obsessives and commercial objectives.
Despite thinking that Ronaldo was a major issue for United’s future development as a side, interim manager Ralf Rangnick did not want to be the one to start the downfall of one of football’s greatest players and continued to select him, even when he only scored one goal and made no assists in his first ten games of 2022.
Rangnick, who was not popular among players, gave up making suggestions and rode the season out, yet Ronaldo’s two hat-tricks in consecutive home league games against Tottenham Hotspur and Norwich started a strong finish to the season for him personally – if not his team, who lost their last six away games and failed to qualify for the Champions League, where Ronaldo made his mark so many times in a stellar career.
Like Rangnick, new manager Erik ten Hag diplomatically accentuated the positives publicly and said he wanted to work with Ronaldo, but his sides, like Rangnick’s, do not usually have a 37-year-old centre forward.
His teams press from the forward line and as veteran manager Neil Warnock opined on Monday: “While the manager won’t admit it publicly, I don’t think he’s going to mind too much if Ronaldo leaves the club. Great player but United need to support Ten Hag with the players he wants, let him build his own team and get that spirit of togetherness back in the dressing room.”
And the other side? If Ronaldo is unhappy with the United team then he’s not the only one. If he is unhappy with the recruitment so far, which is set to see a first signing in Dutch left-back Tyrell Malacia confirmed, then he’s also not the only one. Playing Europa League football is not where Ronaldo sees himself – and not where United should see themselves. It represents failure.
If footballers want to leave they usually do, though United did stand firm with Wayne Rooney in 2013. The timing from Ronaldo does not help United, but he started last season at Juventus and only left on the final day of the window, but United have known they need a striker for months after the departure of Edinson Cavani.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial will get chances again, but they’ve been out of form for years, while Mason Greenwood is suspended from playing. From having too many strikers when Ronaldo arrived, the club have too few, but having too many hardly served United well.
Ten Hag doesn’t want a slimmed down squad either and he’s learning every day: none of the youth strikers are ready for first-team football, United have money to buy.
If Ronaldo leaves, he’ll free up the budget and while proven No 9s are scarce, United have a record of bringing in ageing, proven centre forwards from Radamel Falcao to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani to Sanchez – with a catalogue of injuries and uneven results.
Ronaldo’s status as a United legend is secure. He’s the best player many United fans have ever seen, the best his teammates have played alongside, too. He will be cheered if he stays and continues to score, but do not expect protests for him to stay.