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comment Cristiano Ronaldo is not the future of Manchester United – they should never have re-signed him

Striker’s quality remains unquestionable but new manager at Old Trafford will not want the problems he brings next season

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Was bringing Cristiano Ronaldo back to Manchester United a mistake? Photo: PA/Reuters

Was bringing Cristiano Ronaldo back to Manchester United a mistake? Photo: PA/Reuters

Ralf Rangnick

Ralf Rangnick

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Was bringing Cristiano Ronaldo back to Manchester United a mistake? Photo: PA/Reuters

Cristiano Ronaldo’s invaluable contribution to Manchester United’s Premier League win over Brighton was another reminder of his unparalleled appetite for goals.

But it does not change this reality: United made a mistake re-signing Ronaldo last summer. It will be a bigger one keeping him next season.

I know how contentious that sounds. It is easy to list the many magnificent qualities Ronaldo possesses which make him one of the greatest players we have seen. He remains one of the ultimate goalscorers, having evolved to become a penalty-box predator, liable to deliver when his team most needs it – as against Villarreal and Atalanta – to prolong United’s Champions League campaign. You would not bet against him scoring over 20 goals this season.

“Where would United be without his goals,” is something you often hear.

Well, we already have an answer to that. United scored 121 in all competitions in 2020-’21, their highest tally for 14 years, That is because they were a more balanced, unified team than now.

My reservations about signing Ronaldo – which I first expressed last summer – are no reflection upon his talent and career. They are based on the obvious contrast between the individual skills he brings to a team at this moment, as a 37-year-old, and how the game has evolved tactically at the highest level to the point where the strongest European sides want a specific profile of a number nine, or in some cases play without one.

Look at Europe’s best-performing teams today and the clearest measure of how football has changed is how multi-functional the elite players are. During my career, there was a tendency to focus on one facet of the job. You would hear coaches telling goalkeepers to concentrate primarily on making saves, defenders and midfielders to win their personal duels with opponents, wide men to make chances and strikers to ‘just score goals’.

That is no longer anywhere near enough. Goalkeepers who make saves but cannot pass from the back will not be signed by clubs trying to win the biggest honours. Centre-halves must be more than stoppers and show they are good passers under pressure. Full-backs are like old-fashioned wingers, and the traditional, goal-poaching number nine is virtually extinct in the last eight of the Champions League, replaced by strikers who are the triggers for a high press.

The last three Champions League finals were won by German coaches working to a particular model where every outfield player must work in perfect synchronicity.

Given the cost of signing such a superstar as Ronaldo (an estimated £500,000 (€600,000) a week), it is not a smart investment. Let me repeat: I am talking about this stage of his career, not casting a critical glance at everything he has achieved. How can I, or anyone, credibly criticise someone who has won five Champions League titles and scored over 800 goals?

But if you sign Ronaldo right now, it is a short-term recruitment expected to deliver instant success. United are way off the pace domestically and it would be a major surprise if they win the Champions League. That is why Ralf Rangnick is openly speaking about the need for United to sign another striker before next season.

The two strikers he has to choose from have a combined age of 72. How can that be allowed to happen at a club of Manchester United’s size? “The club needs the best possible centre-forward. This is an obvious one. I think everyone is aware of that,” said Rangnick.

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Ralf Rangnick

Ralf Rangnick

Ralf Rangnick

What will that mean for Ronaldo? More time on the bench next season? Even at 37, we know he is not prepared to accept that. That is another unappealing consequence of his signing. Coaches will tolerate players being unhappy at being left out or substituted. What they cannot accept is it becoming a source of friction every time it happens.

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Whether United wins, loses or Ronaldo scores or goes through a mini goal-drought, it is still too much about the CR7 brand and not enough about the team. After United’s midweek win, Ronaldo posted on social media about ‘the noise’ around the club. He cannot ignore where a lot of that noise comes from.

There was noise after Ronaldo’s response to being substituted against Brentford in the Premier League. There was noise after the overreaction to him being replaced against Young Boys’ in the Champions League group stages (when United were down to ten men and holding a lead).

Letting Ronaldo go will solve more problems than it creates

There is noise generated every time Ronaldo heads straight down the tunnel after another disappointing result. There is noise every time a story is leaked about him ‘considering his future’ at the end of the season. And there is noise when we notice the underwhelmed reaction whenever United score and Ronaldo is not the goalscorer, as was the case when Marcus Rashford struck a last-minute winner against West Ham in January. When a manager leaves out a 37-year-old, there should not be any noise.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Michael Carrick and now Rangnick understand more than anyone that Ronaldo is no ordinary 37-year-old. When he is on the bench or subbed, battle lines are drawn between those arguing he must play, and those who understand why he has reached a point in his career where that cannot always be the case.

Rangnick’s arrival was always going to amplify the situation and become a source of intrigue for tactical connoisseurs. Ronaldo does not press. Even in his prime, he didn’t press.

Whenever I say that on TV, or make that point in these columns, it is interpreted as harsh criticism. It isn’t. It is a considered, factual observation.

No single player can ever be bigger than the club. And no-one knew that better than Alex Ferguson who, in 2006, sold one of the Premier League most prolific goalscorers, Ruud van Nistelrooy, because he felt the striker’s personal hunger for goals was inhibiting the progress of younger, emerging team-mates.

Who reaped the rewards? Ronaldo, who thrived after Van Nistelrooy’s exit. Just like Van Nistelrooy 16 years ago, Ronaldo’s goal sprees have the capacity to make anyone deemed critical look foolish. It does not alter the fact that the next United manager will face the same issues as Rangnick in trying to keep him happy.

My conclusion last August was that re-signing Ronaldo was likely to create more problems than it solved. If his United reunion is limited to one season, letting him go will solve more problems than it creates.

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