Cristiano Ronaldo’s latest walkout on Manchester United marked two significant ends. The final curtain on supporters’ unconditional love for a pouting superstar who as an unused replacement could not stomach sticking around to celebrate a scintillating win over Tottenham. It is also the death knell of this 37-year-old superstar being a relevance – to Erik ten Hag and the United side he seeks to build.
Both are connected. Fans witness the finest display of their team in recent memory and see a man who draws about £500,000 a week sulk because Scott McTominay, Christian Eriksen and Anthony Elanga were preferred when his manager made changes. They watch a footballer who enjoys unadulterated hero status due to his brilliance hurl it back in their faces by acting as if he can and should overshadow their club.
More material is how performing a second stomp-out in less than three months underlines the waning of Ronaldo’s power. In July, at half-time of a friendly against Rayo Vallecano, Ten Hag had the temerity to replace a player who was not close to match fit after missing most of pre-season due to a family issue. Ronaldo’s reaction was to depart Old Trafford before the final whistle in a first challenge to the new manager’s authority. This, too, was a squad member who at the start of the summer had sent out smoke signals that he wished to leave.
[ Erik ten Hag to deal with Ronaldo after early exit down tunnel ]
Cut to Sunday and United’s show of class in honouring Ronaldo’s remarkable feat of 700 club goals with an on-pitch presentation from former manager Alex Ferguson, which was followed with a – by now hardly news – disgruntlement at being taken off during the goalless draw with Newcastle.
Three days later, Ten Hag restored Marcus Rashford to the XI at Ronaldo’s expense. The 52-year-old Dutch man, whose management blends people skills, intelligence, tactical acumen and a hard edge, was pithy in explaining why. His legs, simply, were not up to the “good press” needed to combat Antonio Conte’s visitors.
Cue Tottenham being smothered expertly as the tactical ploy worked a dream, with Fred and Bruno Fernandes goals handing United a handsome triumph. All without Ronaldo, whose eschewing by Ten Hag even as a substitute showed his retreat into further insignificance, having previously been a replacement only in the wins over Liverpool and Arsenal.
As damning a Ten Hag verdict on Ronaldo’s import was found, too, in the manager ignoring him when the team took a serious 6-3 beating at Manchester City: instead, Rashford and Jadon Sancho were the calvary Ten Hag sent for.
It is hardly Ronaldo’s fault he is in the winter of a sparkling career. But what he could do is accept this while continuing to fight – in the correct way – for a starting berth. What will be the next episode in the Ronaldo soap opera intrigues, though observing Ten Hag suggests the manager will play a shrewd hand. For Wednesday’s strop he will surely fine Ronaldo and though any action may be kept in-house, there is the material question of how the team-mates he deserted on Wednesday view the moody superstar.
Respect may be evaporating – not for the talent, hard work, serial silverware, personal honours and the 817 career finishes – but for a character who continues to suggest being the antithesis of the all-for-one spirit Ten Hag knows is vital to achieve success.
The manager will be conscious Ronaldo can still be a potent weapon – predominantly from the bench – so expect him to offer calm dispatches at Friday’s media briefing when being quizzed on the affair, the player’s worth and his future. Any and all answers will be parsed for subtext because an inescapable truth is that the ideal scenario – for Ten Hag, his group and Ronaldo – would be for the player to leave as soon as possible – which is in the January window.
Few, if any, clubs able to afford a player with Ronaldo’s salary was a prevailing reason why he did not depart in summer. But if this same issue seems to remain regarding the winter market, as the side evolve it feels more and more irrelevant. In exiting on Wednesday Ronaldo bolstered Ten Hag’s assessment that he is peripheral to United – there to be deployed when and if required but in no way a shoo-in for the XI on the grounds of former glories and a glittering CV.
As a metaphor, too, for his second coming to United (after the 2003-09 spell) Ronaldo striding off is apt: it points to the sense of him as a cipher, a garlanded perfectionist who, despite being one of the greats, remains unknowable, whose profile beyond the pitch is via image-conscious, choreographed social media posts, with the true persona fiercely guarded.
Perhaps he will take this opportunity to change a little with soul-searching that could lead to an apology issued for Wednesday evening and the revealing of the man behind the mask. Perhaps, though, he will not. – Guardian