TThe saddest thing about Cristiano Ronaldo’s interview with Piers Morgan was that so much of it was so accurate. He correctly identified that Manchester United have not developed much since he left, that the club has been undermined by terrible decisions. When future historians come to write about United’s struggle after Ferguson, the transcript will provide a very useful clarification. But in his diagnosis there is a blind spot: the worst decision United have made since 2013 was to re-sign him.
This is perhaps the tragedy of the great sportsman. Ronaldo may be a narcissist and an ego of such overwhelming gravity that he inevitably dominates any club he plays for, but he has also been one of the greatest footballers of all time and is all the more remarkable for making himself one. The comparison with Lionel Messi is tired but irresistible. Messi has often seemed almost unsure, as if a great talent is working through him and he a half-willing channel. Ronaldo, with tremendous determination and willpower, has worked and worked to transform his ability into something extraordinary.
His dedication to self-improvement made him great, but it’s the same self-absorption that makes him such a difficult teammate at times, the same self-doubt that perhaps prevents him from realizing the extent to which his powers have waned.
And that is of course the reason why he has been so upset by what seems to him inexplicable snubs like being left on the bench against Tottenham. It’s not that his form has dipped. It cannot possibly be that it is best for the team if he is a substitute. It could just be that Erik ten Hag doesn’t respect him.
But alongside the bristling assertiveness, which underlies it, perhaps even provokes it, there is something else: insecurity. In Josh Robinson and Jonathan Clegg’s book Messi vs Ronaldo there is a fascinating detail about Ronaldo, at the height of his Real Madrid fame, meeting a physio who had worked with him in his teenage years at Sporting and giving him a printout of all his awards his, as if he felt the need to justify himself and what he had done with his talent. In it, perhaps, there is still a glimpse of the weedy boy from a difficult background in Madeira, an outsider who was mocked for his provincial accent when he arrived in Lisbon. There is a vulnerability to his genius.
In practical terms, it matters little what has created this ego. Even in his first spell at United when he won three league titles and a Champions League, his reluctance to fulfill his defensive obligations meant that in European games he would be deployed as a centre-forward with Wayne Rooney moved to the left because he could be trusted to track the full-back his.
Ronaldo was a brilliantly skilled player, but his desperation to be in the center caused problems. He scored the equalizer as United beat Chelsea in the Champions League final in Moscow with the kind of header that would become a trademark, but after missing a penalty in the shootout, he stood weeping to himself on the halfway line as his team-mates celebrated Edwin. van der Sar’s decisive save from Nicolas Anelka in front of the United fans.
In that there was perhaps an echo of George Best, who was so disappointed with his own performance when United beat Benfica to win the European Cup in 1968 that he left the celebrations and, by his own account, got really drunk for the first time. And, as with Best, United must break their obsession with a brilliant number seven who is no longer what he was.
Ronaldo’s demons are different, but he was never a team player. That was always the doubt, especially as pressing became increasingly important. He won four Champions Leagues with Real Madrid and had a happy knack for scoring not just a lot of goals, but crucial goals as well. But there was a reason why Madrid were prepared to let him go. And so began a pattern that has defined his last five seasons. In three seasons at Juventus, Ronaldo scored 81 league goals, but the team deteriorated, never scoring as many in a single season as the year before he arrived.
At United it was the same. There were those who celebrated the 18 league goals he scored last season as a remarkable effort in a failing team, the only bulwark between United and humiliation, but the fact is rather that he was the antidote to a problem he caused. In 2020-21, without Ronaldo, United had a clearly defined basic system, which sat deep and attacked at pace on the break and finished second, scoring 73 goals and a total of 74 points; the following season, with Ronaldo, this fluency was lost and they finished sixth, scoring 57 goals and a total of 58 points.
Ten Hag is a hard-pressed coach. His appointment at United meant he was either going to be undermined by Ronaldo or he was going to get rid of him, and it ended up being the latter. Ten Hag has been steely enough to do things his way, to cut through the celebrity hype that always surrounds Ronaldo. And frankly, with his repeated straps, Ronaldo has made his task easier. There are very few now among regular match-goers who still think he should be on the side. This season, United have averaged 1.0 points per game in league games he has started; 2.2 without him.
Ronaldo’s return was an extremely costly mistake, undermining not one but two coaches and seemingly denting the confidence of a number of young players. In his solipsism, however, that doesn’t seem to worry him: it’s Ronaldo and his quest for records and goals, and it’s everyone else.
United fans should remember what Ronaldo was like the first time, should celebrate what he was, but his return has been a failure. Chasing past glories, succumbing to the siren call of nostalgia, is rarely a successful way to run a football club. United have accepted Ronaldo is done; he may soon have to accept that too.