It seemed reasonable to expect it would be his last act in a Manchester United shirt, or at least in a Manchester United substitute’s warm-up bib, in association with the club’s official Blockchain partner.
Last Sunday, Ronaldo led his team out at Villa Park as United captain. As rehabilitations go, it rivals John Travolta in the 1990s.
Captaincy is fetishised by British football fans, but its importance is surely overestimated. Yet some of United’s players must have been lining up behind Ronaldo in the tunnel thinking, ‘Really? This guy?’
In theory, it was not a surprising decision. Ronaldo has been third-choice armband-wearer behind Harry Maguire (benched) and Bruno Fernandes (suspended) since returning to the club.
Erik ten Hag said he had considered David De Gea but mistrusts the concept of goalkeeping captains. Casemiro was another suggestion, but his English is not yet up to speed. No word for the other candidates who have not publicly undermined their manager: Luke Shaw, Christian Eriksen, Marcus Rashford, Mick Hucknall, and Fred the Red.
When the game started, Ronaldo was peripheral, pointing and mooching around until there was a sniff of a goal, when he reached deep inside himself and remembered how to run. He was nowhere near the three Villa goals, although expecting Ronaldo to contribute defensively is like expecting Britiish politician and I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here contestant Matt Hancock to be at his next constituency surgery.
There was a pleasant lay-off out wide to Diogo Dalot in the first half and a stooping header straight at Emiliano Martínez, his only shot on target. Beyond that, his statistics were depressing: 25 touches and 17 passes, the lowest totals of any United player who lasted 90 minutes. He managed only three touches in the Villa box – Alejandro Gamacho had 10 in 65 minutes, Marcus Rashford five in 90.
In the second half, Ronaldo was involved in a penalty box grapple with Tyrone Mings. On another day, that sort of scrap is exactly what a team needs to get itself going. Here, it just looked undignified, even slightly sad. It capped one of the worst captaincy performances since Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal.
Ten Hag did not think much of United’s attempts to play their captain into relevance in the game, delivering crosses that Villa dealt with comfortably.
“I think it was stupid to do that,” he said. “We delivered too quickly crosses in from too far. Then, we don’t help him. We have to bring in the crosses at the right moment.”
Clearly, it is not Ronaldo’s fault he was given the armband, unless he seized it from Maguire’s washbag, refused to give it back and none of the other boys felt brave enough to challenge him.
His manager has been praised for handling his misbehaviour in the Spurs game, ostracising him for a period before bringing him back into the fold. So the reward of the armband seems like a misstep, however relevant it was to United’s two-steps-back performance on Sunday.
The numbers are stacking up against Ronaldo as a starter, let alone captain. Villa was his fourth start in the league, they have won just one of those. United have scored 1.8 per game when he has not started, compared with 0.5 when he has.
It was all barnstorming rescue acts last season, critics being answered by a series of crack-papering last-gasp goals. Now Ronaldo is drifting through games, a non-goalscoring goalscorer. He is an Instagram footballer in a BeReal app world.
Late in the game, Dalot was played into space on the right flank by Rashford. With the right-back in behind the Villa defence, Ronaldo had drifted off Mings and was ready for a tap-in on the back post. Dalot instead chose to pull it back to Anthony Elanga, but the pass was overhit and cleared. Ronaldo looked offside anyway.
Imagine Erling Haaland, Mohamed Salah or Robert Lewandowski in this situation. They would be the only possible final pass. They would score and would be onside. If he’s not scoring, not providing, and decisively, not leading by example, what is Cristiano Ronaldo good for? (©Telegraph Media Group Ltd, 2022)