On so many levels, it was the night when Erik ten Hag truly arrived at Manchester United. A comfortable 2-0 against an admittedly flaccid-looking Spurs was the best performance since his arrival at the club.
It was a marker that, while a tilt at the Premier League title this season remains overly optimistic, the new manager has nevertheless already made a truly significant mark on a team that has been under-performing for most of the last decade.
Yet the story to have dominated new headlines has involved a late non-substitution that should have been of little to no consequence involving a player who can’t even really be considered the future of Manchester United to any meaningful extent.
Not for the first time, Cristiano Ronaldo has embarrassed himself with his petulance; this time it feels as though it will probably be the last time.
What happened late in this match started as rumour, but has since been confirmed by Ten Hag: Ronaldo refused to come on as a substitute and then left Old Trafford before anyone got back to the changing rooms. He has now been separated from the rest of the Manchester United team and will not be in the squad for this Saturday tea-time trip to Stamford Bridge to Chelsea.
Ronaldo has subsequently issued a somewhat garbled statement on the matter, which was primarily notable for what it didn’t say rather than what it did. There was no hint of contrition over his behaviour, no sign of an apology to any of those he’d embarrassed with his uniquely self-centred form of non-verbal complaint.
It’s striking that whether he apologised or not almost feels besides the point. Because it now feels plausible that this may have been the last time that anyone will see him in a Manchester United shirt.
It is, of course, entirely reasonable that Ten Hag will be able to sit down with him and grant one further opportunity to not tarnish his Old Trafford legacy. Ten Hag has, after all, sought to build bridges with him since arriving at the club at the end of last season.
But at the same time… why should he? There’s a new group of players at Old Trafford and most of the signs suggest they are unlikely to need a scarecrow in a Manchester United shirt standing on the opposition’s penalty spot imploring his teammates to pass him the ball at exactly the right weight and to precisely the right position, even if it’s not the best choice.
When Ronaldo arrived at Old Trafford in September last year, for all the talk of his rapidly advancing years there was still a counter-argument that it could all make sense. Ronaldo, it was argued, scores a lot of goals and this alone could justify whatever else he might now be incapable of bringing to the team.
A year on, whatever limited usefulness he may have had to both team and club now seems hopelessly spent, and his net influence is in the negative. Marcus Rashford and (pre-injury) Anthony Martial have rediscovered a bit of form under Ten Hag. Antony has thus far proved to be a clear attacking upgrade.
There was a debate to be had over how useful Ronaldo was to Manchester United when they signed him. There doesn’t seem to be much of one concerning whether he remains useful to them now. If there ever was any huge commercial advantage to having him around (and we should be clear that the ‘shirt sales’ argument was always massively overblown), even that seems to be withering on the vine.
But this is also where his behaviour starts to look perplexingly self-defeating. Manchester United may well not need Ronaldo, but if he does want to extend his career by another year or two then Ronaldo needs Manchester United.
If it was his intention to put himself in the shop window for a move – either in January or at the end of this season when his contract expires – then Manchester United was, well, the shop.
Instead of putting himself in a prime position for one more lucrative contract, his behaviour throughout much of this season has been the equivalent of smearing that shop window with something very nasty indeed.
What we know for certain is that Ronaldo still considers himself an ‘elite’ player. When he submitted his transfer request in the summer, it was all about getting himself back into the Champions League when Manchester United had fallen so far short of doing so themselves.
But who on earth was ever going to take that sort of gamble? If his expectation was to continue to earn hundreds of thousands of pounds per week, well, he always had a surprise coming. He was touted around a number of big European clubs by his agent Jorge Mendes, but none of them were persuaded, and his stock certainly hasn’t risen since then.
The longer time goes on, the more it looks like that he should never have rejected that huge offer made from Saudi Arabia in the summer. The truth of the matter is – and this may be difficult for him to absorb, but that doesn’t make it any less true – he’s simply not an elite level player any more.
There’s nothing intrinsically bad about this. Time catches up with all of us eventually. But the longer time passes, the more it feels as though his refusal to accept this is damaging him more than anybody else.
Manchester United may only be in fifth place in the Premier League at present, but it’s clear that Ten Hag has been making significant progress with a talented group of players. This may not suit the narrative of the aging Ronaldo, but the plain and simple fact is that no player is or should be bigger than the club. If there’s a way of doing so, they should move him on to wherever they can in January.
If there isn’t, he should be released at the end of the season to pursue whatever his retirement lap ends up looking like. All we can say about that with much confidence is that it will be vanishingly unlikely to include involvement in the Champions League, and that if this is the case, the toll taken by getting older will only be a part of the reason why.
His attitude has done him no favours so far this season, and that doesn’t look like changing.
- A Foorball365 report