It is easy to write off pundits’ and journalists’ concerns over Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United as negative, jealous or vindictive, but if we are honest, the fact is that there really could be potential problems associated with the historic move.
The commercial appeal of the transfer is a no-brainer, as reported here yesterday, but when it comes to footballing matters, even though United are signing a player widely regarded to be the greatest of all time, there could be pitfalls.
The Times’ David Walsh lists a number of seemingly legitimate concerns.
First, he points to the fact that despite Ronaldo’s 101 goals in 137 games for Juventus, he did not help the club to achieve more, and indeed it could be argued that the Old Lady took a step backward during his time in Turin.
‘His legion of fans will say the goals absolve him of all responsibility for the team slump,’ Walsh says.
‘That would be a simplistic conclusion. Something that [Brentford owner] Matthew Benham said about strikers resonates.
‘“If I am looking at a striker,” Benham said, “I absolutely do not care about his goalscoring record. For me the only thing that is interesting is how the team do collectively, offensively and defensively, within the context of an individual’s performance.”
‘How were Juventus affected by Ronaldo’s presence? Many Juventus watchers felt that the richly talented Paulo Dybala was not the same player after the superstar’s arrival: the artist became the artist’s apprentice.
‘In the football jungle, Ronaldo is the tallest tree. In his shadow, smaller and younger trees may struggle for light.’
As many have noted, Ronaldo is still a potent goalscoring machine and merely stopping Manchester City from putting that final jewel in their crown might be worth enough to United alone. But he is an extravagance, a luxury player, his inability to press is well-documented; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will need to be sure that that is not a message that is passed on to the younger players.
The effect on Bruno Fernandes will also be interesting to observe. Bruno thrives on being the focal point of his team, he is a leader. It could be of course that not being the biggest star will take pressure off him and free him up to express himself more. But it could be that, as is arguably the case when playing for the national side, his second fiddle status somehow saps some the his usual dynamism from him.
And what of Edinson Cavani? A homesick figure poised to return to South America after a year in England in which he was unfairly punished by the FA and separated from his family due to Covid travel restrictions, he was persuaded to stay at the club one more season to occupy that famous number 7 shirt. Now he is stripped of the shirt and, in all likelihood, stripped of a place in the starting XI and also forbidden to return to Uruguay to play in World Cup qualifiers. Not all Ronaldo’s fault, of course, but his arrival could certainly be a factor that could adversely affect Cavani’s mindset.
Another unknown factor is whether Solskjaer will feel pressure from United’s owners to pick the 36-year-old due to commercial considerations, regardless of how he is performing. Walsh points out that ‘During his one season as Juventus’s head coach, Maurizio Sarri bemoaned the reality of his station. “I put Ronaldo’s name down first and then decide what to do next,” he said.’
And conversely, if Solskjaer is free to rotate and bench the Portuguese and does decide to do so, we have no idea how Ronaldo would react. As he moves into his 38th and 39th years, will his ego allow him to become an impact sub, or a squad player, or one of many fish in a big pond? We do not know.
We also do not know what effect the media circus around Ronaldo will have on the rest of the team. We do know that Paul Pogba’s own circus has caused many a distraction, including a publicity stunt from Mino Raiola that arguably led to United crashing out of the Champions League last season. Many United fans have argued that Pogba should be sold because the circus is distracting to the team. Ronaldo’s circus is a thousand times bigger than that of the Frenchman. We can only wait and hope that it will not become a factor.
In all likelihood, all the positives of the return of the prodigal son will outweigh any of these concerns. The world’s greatest player could and should have the transformative effect that we all hope for and elevate United to genuine Premier League and Champions League contenders. But we cannot just brush the concerns under the carpet, either. They will need to be managed carefully for that success to be able to happen.