The Ronaldo flounce against Spurs was an opportunity to deal with him once and for all, but instead he was back in the team within a week.
It’s very easy to see why Cristiano Ronaldo behaves in the way in which he does. Since he was a teenager he’s been treated like a demigod, his every whim indulged, his every financial demand met, and usually without question.
And no matter how badly he behaves, no matter how much his behaviour threatens the equilibrium of whichever squad he’s supposed to be a part of, there seem to be either no consequences whatsoever when he acts up, or consequences so slight that he might not even notice.
There will always be pushback from thousands of his slavish followers on social media, and from sympathetic parties in the media. And he will ‘get away with it’, because that’s what seems to happen when you’re as immensely rich and influential as he is, even if the evidence of our very own eyes is that, at 37 years of age, he no longer has the pace or movement to be able to thrive in the Premier League.
And so it has turned out yet again. Following his flounce in the closing minutes of the game against Spurs, when he refused to come on as a substitute with a few minutes to play and then left Old Trafford before the rest of the team got back to the dressing room, he was exiled to train on his own and wasn’t selected for the squad to travel to Chelsea.
But this didn’t last very long. In the media, certain ex-pros went out to bat for him with arguments so contorted that they stopped making much sense. And barely a week after his latest piece of egregiously self-centred tantrumming, he was first back training with the rest of the players, then in the squad for United’s home Europa League game against Sheriff Tiraspol, then in the first XI for this game, and then scored the final goal in a 3-0 win which keeps the team in the chase to snatch top place in the group from leaders Real Sociedad in the final round of fixtures.
That Erik ten Hag should have made this decision is in a sense understandable. Manchester United remain light on attacking players in their squad, and the rigours of the modern game require squad rotation. If he’s fit and he’s available, giving him a run out in the starting XI in a match of relatively little consequence – United were already through to the knockout stages of the Europa League before this game – then no harm done. The player’s ego gets a little boost, Ten Hag gets to claim total squad unity, the punishment of missing out on the previous week’s trip to Chelsea is considered sufficient, and another chapter in this ongoing soap opera can be considered closed. Job done.
Except… is it? Scoring the final goal in a comfortable win against the champions of Moldova doesn’t probably doesn’t say much about how he’d progress were he to be thrown back into the first team for Premier League matches and there seems little likelihood that he will have learned any much-needed humility as a result of being excommunicated from the rest of the first team for less than a week. So, what’s actually the reason his ‘punishment’ was so limited?
This is a question worth asking for several reasons. Firstly, what happened against Spurs wasn’t even the first time. During the summer, Ronaldo left Old Trafford before the end of a friendly match against Rayo Vallecano after having been substituted. Quite clearly, whatever was said to him about his behaviour didn’t sink in at that juncture.
Furthermore, this came on top of his announcement that he wanted to leave Manchester United because they’re not playing in the Champions League this season, an announcement that he didn’t make when it first became clear that United weren’t going to be qualifying for it in the first place or at the very end of last season, when United might have had more time to source a direct replacement for him.
Everything about that decision, just as with everything about the Rayo Vallecano incident, and just everything about the Spurs incident, reeked of Cristiano Ronaldo putting every single one of his whims ahead of anything whatsoever related to the wellbeing of Manchester United.
It is true to say that Manchester United have improved considerably this season, but the health and mood of a squad of players can be a difficult set of plates to keep spinning. For any head coach man-management is an important quality to hold, with squads of players the majority of whom are not going to starting anything like every game.
Splits in the dressing room, as United themselves have found more than once in recent years, can cause a toxic atmosphere behind the scenes. And all the more ironically, one of the most important actions taken by the club over the course of last summer was to be able to move on several players who had come to be considered ‘disruptive’.
The results of this have been plain for all to see. This year’s Manchester United team have looked more ‘together’ than any they’ve had for some considerable time. Unlike the myriad other new dawns that United supporters have been promised over the last decade or so, the first third of this season has actually felt like a genuinely fresh start.
And if that togetherness has been missing from Old Trafford for such a long time, if recovering it can prove to be difficult but also extremely valuable, it does rather feel as though Erik ten Hag has taken a bit of a misstep in allowing Ronaldo almost straight back into the first team. Playing for Manchester United should always be a privilege, and from the outside the very idea that any one player could be so stuffed with hubris than he actually seems to consider himself to be more important than one of the biggest football clubs on the planet seems so perverse as to be darkly amusing.
But there are potential ramifications for Manchester United, if this acting up starts to destabilise the rest of the squad. The January transfer window does offer an opportunity to perhaps finally put all of this to rest. It doesn’t seem likely that it will be a Champions League club, but somebody, somewhere – possibly Saudi Arabian – will take him off United’s hands and it’s difficult to see how this wouldn’t be to the benefit of the club in the long term.
Because the truth of the matter is that Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t good enough for Manchester United anymore. He’s too old, too immobile, and too self-centred. And what is perplexing about all of this is that Ronaldo presented United with exactly the sort of open goal that he himself would thrive upon.
They could have kicked him out of the first-team squad, and in doing so would have sent the sternest possible message about what happens to those who question the authority of the manager. Instead, the chances are that he’ll be sitting on the bench against West Ham, glowering away every moment that he’s not on the pitch, and precisely nothing about his increasingly fractious relationship with the club has been fixed.
But after decades of indulgence of his every whim, why would we expect him to be any different?
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