In Cristiano Ronaldo‘s talks with Jorge Mendes, and the representative’s meetings with top clubs, have made a few points abundantly clear. This is not a game and it is not an attempt to take advantage of Manchester United† Ronaldo just wants a chance to win the Champions League again, and is even willing to take a significant pay cut to make it happen.
The big question, and major complication at this delicate stage of his career, is whether signing Ronaldo is more or less likely to take the trophy.
For United, the question is whether keeping Ronaldo is the most conducive to getting back to that level.
There is a reasonable argument that it is time to let go. An increasing number of figures at Old Trafford wondered just that. Even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had enough questions as long ago as last August that he turned to Sir Alex Ferguson for advice when the signing was broached. The club patriarch’s stance was to ‘make it happen’.
The view that was most tempting at the time, as it is now, is that Ronaldo is “a guarantee of goals”. It will remain so, and is something clubs like Chelsea and Bayern Munich consider at the very least.
The other side to consider is that those goals come at a significant cost, much more than wages or a nominal transfer fee.
As both Juventus and now United have discovered, it is not just a simplistic case of adding Ronaldo’s goals to an existing structure. You have to change the structure a lot for the Portuguese to accommodate him, so it’s not what it used to be. His signature no longer naturally fits what was there.
United went from 73 league goals last season to 57 this and Juventus went from 86 goals in 2017-18 to 70, 76 and 77 in their three campaigns with Ronaldo.
Ensuring that this great legend can score at the same pace now usually means the team can’t, due to the necessary tactical compromises.
Therefore, the debate about where United would have been without Ronaldo had always been the wrong discussion. The real difference was that signing him meant that this was not the same United.
This is not to exonerate Solskjaer, Ralf Rangnick or the string of Juventus managers that Ronaldo played under. The Norwegian, for example, was always short of the required level and it seemed only a matter of time before that was finally achieved. Ronaldo might have hastened it.
It’s also undeniable that the Portuguese was with both clubs during transition periods in their recent histories. Ronaldo would have been surprised at United’s decline when he returned in September. These are concerns that have only grown, to get to this point where it feels like a waste of his limited time to stay at the club.
It’s just that a prominent indication of those troubles could be Ronaldo’s signing. Clubs with a fully defined football identity are less likely to bring in the 37-year-old, as they are aware that it is impossible for him not to impose his own identity. He is such a dominant figure that a team has to become “Ronaldo FC”, where everything has to be at his service.
That fame led to a contradiction at both United and Juve, as well as a line that was heard repeatedly at both clubs: “It’s like playing with 10 men”. At least until you get the ball to him in the penalty area.
It certainly meant it was like training with 10 men.
All of Ronaldo’s forward-thinking recent managers, from Maurizio Sarri to Rangnick, found that realistically they had to do teamwork with just nine of the outfield players. It caused problems for Sarri in particular, given the extent to which he has to integrate his teams. Set moves would just bust because the move in one key area was not there. In short, the sides could not be fully synchronized.
It wasn’t just that Ronaldo doesn’t have the mobility anymore physically, although that was a big problem. It is that there was often resistance in terms of personality.
Training drills are soundtracked by Ronaldo muttering “this is shit” or kicking a ball. When the Portuguese is especially bored with working on team form or automatisms, he has stated that training should be “fun”.
Such sentiments, of course, weigh more heavily due to the player’s historical legacy in the game, a factor that has influenced the current situation given the extent to which he is concerned about that status.
Many younger players still look up to him, although even that is not the case. Leo Bonucci led a group that would challenge him at Juventus. His power base at United would be smaller than he thinks.
The players Ronaldo would see in his group are Bruno Fernandes, David De Gea, Raphael Varane and – until this summer – Paul Pogba. Fernandes is of course one of those who have considered Ronaldo a ‘hero’, but they are not particularly close.
This is not to say that all accounts are those of a discerning prima donna. Those who look up to Ronaldo say he can be hugely supportive and willing to join the training ground. He never minded being mocked by teammates in that friendly way.
He is also seen as someone who “gets things done”. Ronaldo made sure there were urgently needed improvements to some of the players’ facilities in Carrington.
This is where people speak of “a winner”, with “the highest standards”.
It can only look like something else if the team doesn’t win – showing how each individual depends on the collective.
captain of the club Harry Maguire is a name notably missing from Ronaldo’s core group, and a string of sources say the bracelet is a live release.
This is more because of politics than role. Ronaldo’s vision of the captaincy is that it means you can never be dropped and if there is one thing that Ronaldo absolutely abhors at this point in his career it is the image of him being left on the bench before a big game.
These are photos he really doesn’t want, especially given his concern for his legacy.
This is also what brings another potential complication with his United situation.
While Erik ten Hag is currently willing to work with Ronaldo and use him as the centerpiece of the team, the Dutch coach has been appointed because he is just such a forward-thinking ideologue.
If it turns out that Ronaldo is no longer physically capable of what Ten Hag wants, can we have a situation where United’s highest paid and arguably best player is embarrassingly put on the bench?
That is why the club has at least discussed his departure, even though the official position is that they want him to stay, and there is some annoyance at how this story has already played out in public. One of the reasons United didn’t go all in on Darwin Nunez was because they had Ronaldo and they felt the budget could be better used for other positions in midfield and defence. It would significantly affect their plans to move forward.
Everyone is watching now whether Ronaldo returns for training, or go on the pre-season tour to Thailand. So much depends on his first face-to-face meeting with Ten Hag, not to mention when it actually takes place.
Meanwhile, Mendes is actively working on alternative options. While clubs like Chelsea and Bayern Munich were reluctant to move after initial talksThe fact that Ronaldo is willing to take a pay cut could change things. His earnings at Old Trafford, reportedly over £700,000 a week all-in, were clearly prohibitive. Really, they were unjustifiable. But Ronaldo now has bigger motivations than money.
That, for all these issues, is partly to his credit. He just wants to keep competing.
Only that mentality can be convincing. It is the source of those goals.
It’s also why a coach who had worked with this late career Ronaldo and was aware of all the issues associated with it gave a telling answer when asked if he would still sign him.
The answer: “I would sit down with him.”
This is what Ten Hag has thought. This is what Tuchel thinks.
While Ronaldo may not allow for a modern identity, the chance that managers almost always take is that his goals can keep you competitive as you try to give that identity around him.
It incurs costs, beyond wages. Ronaldo is eager to give the European a boost again, but at least there’s the possibility that the modern Champions League’s most successful player ever poses a major obstacle to winning it.