Ronaldo wanted to be center stage but now has to head for the exit door |  Manchester United

Ronaldo wanted to be center stage but now has to head for the exit door | Manchester United

JThe saddest part of Cristiano Ronaldo’s interview with Piers Morgan was that much of it was so specific. He correctly identified that Manchester United haven’t changed much since he left, that the club has been plagued by terrible decision-making. When historians of the future come to write about United’s struggles after Ferguson, the transcript will provide a very useful summary. 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 cocky narcissist and such a crushing ego that he inevitably dominates every club he plays for, but he was also one of the greatest footballers of all time and is all the more remarkable that he did. The comparison with Lionel Messi is hackneyed but irresistible. Messi has often seemed almost shy, as if some great talent was working through him and he was a semi-willing conduit. Ronaldo has, with extraordinary determination and willpower, worked and worked to turn his abilities into something extraordinary.

His dedication to self-improvement has made him great, but it’s that same self-centeredness that sometimes makes him such a difficult teammate, that same self-confidence that perhaps keeps him from realizing just how great his powers are. decreased.

And that’s of course why he’s been so outraged by what seems to him inexplicable rebuffs like being left on the bench against Tottenham. It’s not that his form has diminished. It can’t be better for the team if he’s a substitute. It could just be that Erik ten Hag is disrespecting him.

But alongside this bristling affirmation, 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 fame at Real Madrid, meeting a physio who had worked with him when he was a teenager at Sporting and handing him a feeling of all his rewards, as if he felt the need to justify himself and what he had done with his talent. In there, perhaps, is still a glimpse of the weedy kid from a difficult background in Madeira, a foreigner who was mocked for his provincial accent when he arrived in Lisbon. There is a vulnerability to his genius.

Concretely, it does not matter what created this ego. Even in his first spell at United when he won three league titles and a Champions League, his reluctance to take on his defensive responsibilities meant that, in European games, he would be deployed at centre-forward with Wayne Rooney moved to the left because he could be trusted to follow his full-back.

Ronaldo was a brilliantly skilful player, but his desperation to be in the limelight created problems. He scored the equalizer when United beat Chelsea in the Champions League final in Moscow with the kind of header that would become a trademark, but then, after missing a penalty in the shootout, he went to cry alone on the halfway line as his teammates celebrated Edwin. Van der Sar’s decisive save on Nicolas Anelka in front of the United supporters.

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag talks to Cristiano Ronaldo.
Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag and Cristiano Ronaldo have failed to resolve their differences. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

In this, perhaps, there was 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, from his own leader, got very drunk for the first time. . And, as with Best, United need to break their obsession with a brilliant number seven who is no longer what he used to be.

Ronaldo’s demons are different, but he was never a team man. This has always been the doubt, especially as the pressing has become more and more important. He won four Champions Leagues with Real Madrid and had a knack for scoring not only lots of goals but also decisive ones. But there was a reason why Madrid were ready to let him go. And so began a pattern that defined his final five seasons. In three seasons at Juventus, Ronaldo scored 81 league goals, but the team went from strength to strength and never scored as many in a single season as the year before his arrival.

At United it was similar. 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 core system, sitting deep and attacking at break pace and finished second, scoring 73 goals and tallying 74 points; the following season, with Ronaldo, that fluidity was lost and they finished sixth, scoring 57 goals and tallying 58 points.

Ten Hag is a demanding coach. His appointment to United meant he was either going to be undermined by Ronaldo or getting rid of him, and it was ultimately the latter. Ten Hag was tough enough to do things his own way, to cut through the stardom that still surrounds Ronaldo. And, frankly, with his repeated strops, Ronaldo made it easy for himself. There are very few regular viewers who still think he should be in the team. This season, United have averaged 1.0 points per game in the league matches they have started; 2.2 without him.

Ronaldo’s return was a hugely costly mistake, undermining not one but two coaches and seemingly diminishing the confidence of a number of young players. In his solipsism, however, that doesn’t seem to concern him: there’s Ronaldo and his quest for records and goals, and there’s everyone else.

United fans should remember how Ronaldo was the first time around, should celebrate what he was, but his comeback was a failure. Chasing past glories, giving in to the siren call of nostalgia, is rarely an effective way to run a football club. United accepted that Ronaldo was finished; he may soon have to accept that too.

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