Legend’s insubordination signals a painful end at Old Trafford as Erik Ten Hag has shown he won’t tolerate tantrums
Antony and Lisandro Martinez applauded all corners of Old Trafford, the latter eventually leaving the field to loud chants of “Ar-gen-tina”. Marcus Rashford was beaming. How nice to see the England striker with a smile back on his face after a year in which he looked in a dark place.
Erik ten Hag got around pretty much each and every one of his players, a few backslaps here, high fives and fleeting hugs there, but the manager still wore a business-like look that said: “Brilliant boys but tomorrow – Chelsea”.
Manchester United had just produced one of their most complete performances in years and the squad and staff were all together to enjoy the moment and show their appreciation for the fans who had turned Old Trafford into quite the cauldron.
Except for one man, of course.
With more than 30 seconds of normal time remaining and another five minutes of stoppages to play, Cristiano Ronaldo resolved that he had seen enough. Wearing his bright orange substitutes’ bib, he made a solemn trudge for the tunnel, briefly craning his neck to see what was unfolding on the pitch. A few fans stuck out hands as Ronaldo entered the mouth of the tunnel.
And then he was gone.
It was a lowly act of petulance and selfishness from a player who, once again, managed to make the story about him, despite his relegation to the fringes. Ten Hag had also only made three of his five substitutes by that stage, so if the manager had needed to call on Ronaldo in those closing stages – perhaps because of an unforeseen injury – the forward was nowhere to be seen.
If that felt like two fingers up to his team-mates and manager, Ronaldo would soon double down: walking out of Old Trafford before the game was over less than 12 weeks after being rebuked by Ten Hag for doing something similar during a pre-season friendly against Rayo Vallecano in July. Ten Hag made it clear such behaviour was “unacceptable”. This was an open act of insubordination, and Ten Hag cannot allow such defiance to go unpunished.
The Dutchman has shown he is unafraid to make big decisions and put noses out of joint since taking charge at Old Trafford. Now he must make an example of Ronaldo by fining the player and reminding him of his responsibilities to the club that pays his eye-watering wages. An apology would not go amiss either.
Ten Hag has re-established the authority of the manager at United: here is another opportunity to remind everyone who is boss.
What is unfolding this season cannot be easy for the greatest goalscorer in the history of the men’s game and one of the sport’s true giants. Handling Ronaldo’s decline was never going to be straightforward – for the player or his manager – and everyone can see he is having a hard time accepting his own mortality and reduced status.
But none of those things is an excuse for defying your manager and abandoning your team-mates in such fashion.
It is one thing to be substituted with a cob on – as he was against Newcastle on Sunday – and sit there brooding on the bench, quite another to leave that bench altogether and then the ground with a game still being played.
Listening to Patrice Evra, in his role as a pundit for Amazon Prime Video, trying to make excuses for his former team-mate on Wednesday was excruciating, and credit to presenter Gabby Logan for not allowing the matter to rest. Actions like this can destabilise dressing rooms and Ronaldo, should be setting an example – playing or not.
It takes a certain kind of hubris to be willing to walk off the touchline and then out of the stadium like the Portugal striker did on Wednesday and deflect attention from what should have been a night of solely positive headlines for his club. Was this part of some plan to try and force United’s hand to facilitate his exit in January? Or was this a more impulsive action and Ronaldo, taking pity on himself, sought a warped, if very public, outlet for his frustration and annoyance at his plight?
Either way, he was guilty of sabotaging his manager and his team-mates.