Where has it gone wrong for Ronaldo on his return to Old Trafford?

When Cristiano Ronaldo returned to Old Trafford just over a year ago, it seemed like a win-win for both parties. United had signed one of the best strikers in the world, albeit at the age of 36 but still, someone who could potentially score 20 to 30 goals per season.

As well as this, he was a fan favourite due to his six-year stint at the club from 2003 to 2009 when he helped the club win three Premier League titles and the Champions League. As for Ronaldo, he was joining a side that finished second in the league the previous year and he would have been hoping to help the side challenge for a first Premier League title since 2013.

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The euphoria surrounding Ronaldo’s return to United was incredible for the fans and something of this scale hadn’t been seen since Sir Alex Ferguson left the club almost a decade ago. The signing of Ronaldo was finally a moment for United fans to celebrate something after a downtrodden number of years which saw the club win only three cup competitions in eight years. The Portuguese superstar began his second spell at the club in brilliant fashion with two well taken goals against Newcastle in front of a wild Old Trafford crowd, who welcomed their hero back to Manchester 12 years after he left the club. However, there were some worrying signs in that home match against Newcastle. The team’s overall performance was poor in large spells of the game, and it was individual brilliance from Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes that made the difference in a 4-1 victory.

As the season went on, Ronaldo scored a lot of goals, but team performances were poor. United’s counter attacking play that served them well in the 2020/21 season wasn’t suited to Ronaldo leading the line. Other players such as Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford struggled throughout the season and scored less goals. Ronaldo also provided little defensively when United didn’t have the ball. He wouldn’t track back, and he also didn’t press much when the opposition were in possession. As well as this, Ronaldo was a target man up front for United, and he contributed very little in the build-up of United’s attacks. It was up to the other attacking players to get the ball to him and if they played a poor pass or delivered a bad cross, he would make his frustrations known to his teammates.

As well as these problems in United’s general play, there were some problems beginning to appear in team morale. If United lost, Ronaldo would sometimes sulk and leave the pitch without applauding the fans or shaking hands with opposition players. Also, other players such as Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes seemed to be playing with less freedom and generally looked unhappy on the pitch as their performances got worse throughout the season.

United’s performances and results were poor at the start of the season. An embarrassing 5-0 loss at home to Liverpool and a 4-1 loss at newly promoted Watford were the the final straw as United’s manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked. Ralf Rangnick came in as interim manager and the performances and results didn’t improve as United remained in sixth place for most of the season. It would be wrong to say Ronaldo was solely to blame for United’s problems. He scored 24 goals in all competitions and was the club’s top scorer. The recruitment staff at the club must be blamed for the problems that United have faced with Ronaldo.

Looking back at the signing it appears to have been a panic buy. It seems that United were motivated to sign Ronaldo in order to prevent Manchester City from signing him when it looked like City were close to finalising a deal. It could also be argued that signing the Portuguese striker was an attempt by the club’s owners to gloss over their failings in recent years and try to win support from the United fans. However, the signing didn’t make much sense with what United were trying to build under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, considering their attack was made up of young, fast creative players with great potential such as Rashford, Martial and Bruno Fernandes.

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From Ronaldo’s point of view, he wasn’t planning to join a team that was going to finish sixth and be out of every cup competition by March. Ronaldo is a winner and wanted to join a side that would be competing for trophies at the end of the season. He was even considering a move to Manchester City at one point and a deal with the blue side of Manchester looked close before United intervened late on and managed to sign him on a two-year contract. The idea that Ronaldo came back to United because of his past loyalty to the fans and the club is wrong. He came back purely to win trophies and score as many as goals as possible while doing so. When Ronaldo saw how poor the squad was and how badly the club was being run, he immediately wanted to leave. Any loyalty to the club’s supporters and staff was gone when he felt that his winning mentality wasn’t being matched with the club’s ambitions. After all, this was a player who played for United under Sir Alex Ferguson when winning league titles and European Cup’s was seen as the norm and to finish second was a failure. To finish sixth and face Europa League football was something unheard of for Ronaldo when he was previously at United or any other club.

In the summer, Ronaldo publicly stated his intention to leave United only a year after re-joining the club. Ultimately, the Portuguese striker knows he hasn’t got many years left at the highest level and it was his intention to play for a Champions League club this season. Unfortunately for him, it seems that none of the biggest clubs in the Champions League wanted to sign him or could afford his transfer fee and wages. In the end, Ronaldo had no choice but to stay at United until January. This left the new United manager Erik Ten Hag in a difficult position. The former Ajax coach initially stuck by Ronaldo and seemed to have handled the situation very well. The Portuguese striker started some games early in the season and came off the bench in others.

However, tensions have flared between the two as the season has gone by. Ten Hag publicly criticised Ronaldo for leaving Old Trafford at half time after he was taking off early during a pre-season game against Rayo Vallecano. Things seemed to calm down after this until United’s home match against Tottenham when Ronaldo refused to come on for the last couple of minutes and stormed down the tunnel before the game had ended. He was suspended for the next game away to Chelsea. Again, the situation was handled well by the manager as he gave him a punishment for his behaviour and was willing to move on after it.

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However, Ronaldo’s behaviour made him lose a lot of respect from United fans as well as pundits and former teammates. Former United captain and Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville called out Ronaldo’s behaviour after the Spurs game and said that it would be best for the club and the player if his contract was ended as soon as possible. Although Ronaldo remains at the club and has got back into the first team, it does seem to be a matter of time before he leaves the club. It seems like it would be the best move for both parties. Ronaldo has begun to sour his relationship with Manchester United fans in recent times and although he will always be a club legend for what he did in his first spell at the club, these recent incidents have made fans lose a little bit of respect for him.

Furthermore, United look like they need a different man up front, someone who contributes more to the team as well as scores goals. As for Ronaldo, he obviously won’t accept being a second option who plays a few minutes off the bench and only starts the less important games in the Europa League. A move back to Sporting Lisbon could suit him as he would have a better chance of playing every game and there may be an opportunity to play in the Champions League. Ronaldo is likely to have many offers from clubs across the top leagues in Europe.

A move across Europe could be a good option as there is a slower pace of play in the other top European leagues. This could suit Ronaldo well in the latter years of his career and could give him the chance to end his career on a high by scoring a huge number of goals and potentially winning more trophies.

The Author

Darren O'Keeffe

I am a Manchester United fan and aspiring football journalist. I have recently completed a Sports Journalism Diploma in Dublin Business School (DBS).

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