There is a new manager at Manchester United, but it is the same old story at Old Trafford.
Another summer is being dominated by transfer sagas. What should be an exciting time for Red Devils supporters, the early weeks of the Erik ten Hag era, has instead been overshadowed.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s declaration he wants to leave United could not have come as a big shock at the club, with the Portugal superstar unlikely to want to have to feature in the Europa League.
But with few obvious suitors able to offer both Ronaldo the challenge and gigantic pay packet he wants, Ten Hag has been left with no choice but to plan for a future with the wantaway striker. Chelsea’s initial interest quickly faded – and United were unlikely to sell to a Premier League rival – while one of the few elite European teams needing a striker, Bayern Munich, have all-but ruled themselves out of the running despite Robert Lewandowski forcing a move to Barcelona. A huge offer from Saudi Arabia is reportedly on the table but with the World Cup taking place in the middle of the 2022-23 season Ronaldo will not want to be plying his trade in a lesser league.
Assessing Ronaldo’s return to Manchester is tricky as the veteran was one of the top scorers in the Premier League – he netted 23 goals across all competitions – but United rarely looked like a functional team with him as the figurehead. Ronaldo might be a remarkable physical specimen for a 37-year-old but it is fair to say his attacking movement is much more limited than it was. Other forwards like Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford also appeared to be marginalised, with both players losing their England squad places and seemingly unlikely to go to the World Cup.
Ronaldo missed United’s pre-season tour of Thailand and Australia for what have been claimed to be personal reasons, leaving Ten Hag in an awkward position of having to be asked about the absent forward every time he speaks to the media. It is fair to say Ten Hag has enough on his plate trying to turn around this listing ship without having the Ronaldo drama to sort out as well.
One thing in Ten Hag’s favour is that Anthony Martial, whose time at Old Trafford appeared to be over not long ago, has stepped up well as Ronaldo’s replacement during pre-season so far. United would need to sign a striker if Ronaldo leaves, especially with a question mark hanging over the future of Mason Greenwood, but Martial’s presence indicates Ten Hag has options.
For all the criticism over Ronaldo’s lack of pressing last term, results with and without him tell a different story. United won only two of the eight games they played without Ronaldo and scored fewer goals per game when he was not in the side. Ronaldo’s 18 Premier League goals were also responsible for earning United 14 points – more than any player in the division. Bruno Fernandes, his Portugal team-mate, was the only other United player to hit double figures.
One transfer saga would be enough for Ten Hag to handle in his first summer in charge of one of the world’s biggest clubs. But United are currently managing two of them at the same time.
Not only is it unclear whether or not Ronaldo will be staying, Ten Hag does not yet know if his top target Frenkie de Jong will be joining from Barcelona. While the La Liga giants likely need to sell one of their prime assets to arrest staggering debt levels at Camp Nou, De Jong does not seem particularly keen on the prospect of a move to Old Trafford, which begs the question why United have put all their eggs in the same leaky basket. The potential De Jong wild goose chase has more than a whiff of United’s pursuit of Cesc Fabregas when David Moyes took charge, with the Scot having to be content with bringing in Marouane Fellaini from old club Everton instead.
With the start of the season just around the corner, United need a rapid Ronaldo resolution. Whether he stays or he goes, Ten Hag cannot create his plans without an answer – and fast.