Cristiano Ronaldo has told Manchester United he wishes to leave this summerHe has missed two consecutive days of United's pre-season training this week The striker is concerned that he won't be able to compete for biggest trophies But United may benefit from icon's departure as Erik ten Hag takes over as bossNeither Ralf Rangnick or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could find balance with RonaldoNow is the time to bring a fantastic love affair to a close - and move on
Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United have enjoyed the most incredible love affair, but it is time to move on.
The relationship has not turned toxic – the player and club will forever care deeply for one another – but it simply isn’t working and both would benefit by ending it.
Ronaldo has told United he wishes to leave this summer amid concerns he will be unable to compete for the biggest trophies at the club. This week, he has failed to show up for pre-season training, on Tuesday citing ‘family reasons’, as a move appears to edge ever closer.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been a fantastic player for Manchester United, but he is ready to leave
United are reluctant to let him go. They have built their transfer plans on the belief that Ronaldo will stay, so it must be alarming to consider an immediate future without him.
But however painful it is to conceive, the talisman’s departure would give United, and new boss Erik ten Hag, the best chance of making the club competitive again.
It may seem peculiar to conclude that Ronaldo, 37, and United should part, not least because Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea have been linked with the wantaway star.
After all, the striker is a legendary performer in the Theatre of Dreams and in a difficult season still scored 24 goals in all competitions. Indeed, there have been moments during his second coming at Old Trafford that have even reignited the magic of his first spell, under Sir Alex Ferguson.
The comeback win against Atalanta in the group stages of the Champions League is a thrilling example.
It was a vintage European night at Old Trafford. Two-nil down and apparently out, Ronaldo dragged his side back into the tie through sheer will and unrivalled ability. At 2-2, with nine minutes to play, no one doubted that the Portuguese would seal the win.
Ronaldo scored 24 goals last season and was involved in some memorable moments
New United boss Erik ten Hag has previously stated that he sees Ronaldo playing a key role
The fact he did so with a trademark leap and emphatic headed finish only enhanced the euphoria.
And yet the dysfunction of the current relationship was also laid bare on that triumphant evening.
Ferguson’s teams had a defensive security, which allowed Ronaldo and Co the freedom to wreak havoc at the other end of the field. That is not the case now.
Atalanta sliced through United in the first 45 minutes and only David de Gea’s brilliance kept the three-time European Cup winners in the game. There was little cohesion and they were booed off at half time.
United’s vulnerabilities are not all Ronaldo’s fault, but the truth is that neither Ole Gunnar Solskjær or Ralf Rangnick could integrate the striker into an effective team structure.
It was a similar story at Juventus, where Ronaldo scored 101 goals in 134 games in all competitions, but despite his personal achievements, Max Allegri, Maurizio Sarri and then Andrea Pirlo all struggled to accommodate him.
It is likely Ten Hag will fail in that endeavour, too.
To some extent, at both clubs, Ronaldo’s goals served to paper over the widening cracks.
Ten Hag’s approach has been to press the opposition hard, but that hasn’t been Ronaldo’s style
Last season, United played without purpose, particularly when out of possession. Rangnick made clear he wanted his side to press – and he set them up to do it – but they simply couldn’t with Ronaldo leading the line and they were exposed as a result, relying too often on the Portuguese’s goals to avoid embarrassment.
‘The problem is when your poison is your medicine, you will struggle,’ Thierry Henry perceptively observed on CBS, after seeing Ronaldo net a late winner against Villareal last season.
‘At the end, Ronaldo saves them, but when they play, they are exposed sometimes because they don’t defend as a unit. We all know if you want to win, you’ve all got to run.’
Surely. it is only going to get worse under the leadership of Ten Hag.
The Dutchman is firmly rooted in the modern tradition of ‘the press’. Like Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and Julian Nagelsmann at Bayern Munich, he is driven by a fervour to regain possession high up the pitch.
To play with a centre forward who does not press, is to ask Ten Hag to redefine his whole approach.
The fact is Ronaldo does not play that way. He achieved fewer presses during the 2021-22 campaign than any forward in the top five European leagues, with less than seven per 90 minutes.
Thierry Henry highlighted how Ronaldo is United’s ‘poison and also their medicine’ at times
|Team||Opposition passes per defensive action|
|Source: The Times|
As a result, United conceded possession and position on the field. None of their domestic or European rivals play that way.
In the Champions League, Liverpool produced on average 53 pressures on the ball in the attacking third, Chelsea 54, Manchester City 45, Bayern Munich 43, Ten Hag’s Ajax 40 and even Real Madrid, not known for their pressing, returned a respectable 39.
United, managed just 29 pressures per game at the top end of the pitch, which was more like Benfica and Villarreal, who both accepted their best chance of survival in the competition lay in a low block.
The demands that Ten Hag puts on his players to win the ball back can be seen in other statistics, too. On average, Ten Hag only allowed the opposition seven passes before his players took a defensive action, which indicates a furious pace, and it is at a higher level than even Liverpool, Bayern or Chelsea.
In contrast, United allowed opponents 12 passes before one of their players got stuck in, according to figures compiled by The Times.
And of course, Ajax forwards were in the vanguard of Ten Hag’s proactive defence. The Brazilian, Antony, and Ivorian international, Sebastian Haller, each achieved twice as many pressures as Ronaldo last season.
Feyenoord left back Tyrell Malacia,22, is heading for Manchester United in a £13million deal
Inbound Manchester United signing Tyrell Malacia (pictured back) seen arriving at Carrington
United have responded to reports that Ronaldo is ready to leave by indicating he is not for sale, which is understandable since there is no replacement identified.
The Dutch coach had planned for him to be part of his strikeforce for the new campaign and United’s transfer strategy has reflected that, which certainly complicates any split.
Indeed, a lack of transfer activity has reportedly contributed to Ronaldo’s decision to put in a request to leave.
Ten Hag made Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong his primary target, and with the Spanish club demanding £69m, United appeared to soft pedal on other interests while that was concluded.
On Monday, 22-year-old Feyenoord left back Tyrell Malacia arrived at Carrington and expected to complete a £13m deal and Christian Eriksen has agreed in principle to join the Red Devils.
Should Ronaldo push harder to leave though – as appears to be the case on Tuesday – the prospect of having to find a new striker may mean a stark re-assessment of their limited budget, although United have few viable options up front.
In house, Ten Hag and his staff are working hard on Marcus Rashford to restore him to past glories, but it remains to be seen how quickly his prodigious talent can be reanimated after a couple of confidence-sapping seasons.
Ten Hag is eager for Manchester United to sign Frenkie de Jong as a matter of urgency
Ten Hag sees De Jong, who he worked with at Ajax, as key to his revolution at United
Ten Hag has also expressed interest in signing his former player, Antony, from Ajax
Anthony Martial is back in the building following an uninspiring loan spell at Sevilla. But even before that he failed to convince as an out-and-out striker at Old Trafford, and has been widely expected to leave.
In the unlikely event of United abandoning their plan to bolster the midfield, they have already missed out on the big guns, with Harry Kane now re-settled at Spurs under Antonio Conte, Erling Haaland at Manchester City and Darwin Nunez at Liverpool.
Ten Hag remains interested in signing Antony from Ajax. He rates the winger highly having worked with him for two seasons and he is eager to bring him to Old Trafford.
However, Ajax’s valuation of £70m has been seen as too expensive, and besides, he would not solve the centre forward problem if Ronaldo goes.
But there are other options, even if they don’t have Ronaldo’s blockbuster credentials.
Lyon’s French forward Moussa Dembele has been previously been linked with United
And Victor Osimhen of Napoli has also been a target for the Red Devils under previous regime
Roma forward Tammy Abraham has ignited his career at Roma, scoring 17 goals in Serie A
One of them is free agent Paulo Dybala.
Out-of-contract Dybala, who has been in Miami training with former United star, Paul Pogba, has called an end to his seven-year spell at Juventus having scored 115 goals in 293 appearances at the club.
As well as a good scoring record, Dybala links the play well and is a far more enthusiastic defender from the front than Ronaldo.
According to La Repubblica, Old Trafford chiefs have spoken to the Argentine’s agent in a bid to agree a deal with the 28-year-old. They also cite that Arsenal have made contact too.
The Italian outlet claims that Inter Milan, Tottenham Hotspur and Napoli are also interested in securing Dybala’s signature, although there is no confirmation they have yet held talks with the forward’s agent Jorge Antun.
Elsewhere, Lyon’s Moussa Dembele is a player United have looked at before, when Solskjaer was in charge, prior to signing Edinson Cavani.
The France international would be a bargain option when compared to Ronaldo’s wages of £400,000-a-week and the 25-year-old netted 21 goals from 30 Ligue 1 matches, last term.
Another former transfer target, Napoli striker Victor Osimhen, could come back into the reckoning. The 23-year-old scored 14 goals in 27 Serie A appearances last season.
Manchester United have reportedly contacted Paulo Dybala’s agent in a bid to sign the forward
Free agents Paul Pogba (left) and Paulo Dybala enjoyed a workout together in Miami on Sunday
Meanwhile, United may not have moved for Tammy Abraham when he left Chelsea for Roma a year ago, but the England international has reignited his career in Italy, scoring 17 top flight goals in a highly productive season, as well as demonstrating an impressive maturity overseas.
If Ronaldo goes, it would present Ten Hag with a huge challenge, but it may prove to be a blessing. It would offer the new boss a clean slate and the opportunity to be true to his own philosophy.
In the short-term Ten Hag would lose Ronaldo’s goals, but he could trade them for greater stability and a better balance in a more resilient team.
Ten Hag clearly craves more control in games than United achieved under Solskjaer and Rangnick. His pursuit of Dane Christian Eriksen, who has now verbally agreed to move to Old Trafford on a three-year deal, and the continued pursuit of De Jong are proof of that.
De Jong remains key for Ten Hag. He can help deliver the structure upon which to build future success, especially if there is someone in front of him prepared to put the work in out of possession.
The Dutchman is planning to hold talks with Ronaldo when he eventually returns to training. Ronaldo is ready to move on… so now it is up to Ten Hag to tell the club that they must let go, too, however scary that may seem.