The adage “never go back” is one that is routinely ignored in football, and Cristiano Ronaldo’s stunning return to his former club Manchester United this week is a case in point. Invariably, when the project, or the money, or both, is right, managers and players alike think nothing of returning to the clubs where they made their names. The outcome of these glorious homecomings tends to oscillate between minor disappointment for fans as they realise their ageing club icon no longer has the legs for elite-level football (as seen with Thierry Henry and Didier Drogba) to an indelible stain on one’s legacy (as seen with Jose Mourinho’s final acrimonious Chelsea departure).
Generally speaking, going back is rarely a good thing in football.
Much has changed since Ronaldo’s original departure from United to join Real Madrid and fulfil a “childhood dream” of representing Los Blancos. Ronaldo is no longer the incendiary, swashbuckling wing-phenomenon who left United in July 2009, aged 24. Gone is the party bag of flicks, stepovers and backheels, and in its place stands a football assassin.
Now 36, Ronaldo’s time in Spain and later Italy has transformed him into possibly the most devastating goal scorer football has seen, almost like a lab creation designed with the sole purpose of scoring goals. Having undeniably lost a yard or two of pace, Ronaldo has compensated with a supernatural prescience regarding the destination of crosses and passes, which allows him to finish off chances before the typical defender has even sensed danger.
Ronaldo’s goals are rarely spectacular these days, but the rate at which he scores them still is. His 101 goals in 134 games in all competitions for Juventus over the past four seasons underlines his unfaltering goalscoring pedigree.
Ronaldo joins a very different Manchester United to the one he left. During his first spell at the club, he won nine major honours. Under the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, silverware was an expectation rather than an aspiration; second place a catastrophe, rather than a respectable achievement. But now United begin their ninth consecutive season without having won a domestic league title. Sir Alex is long gone and United have the affable, but unproven Ole Gunnar Solskjær at the helm of the club’s desperate push to return to the apex of English football.
There is no questioning his brilliance, but one wonders where Ronaldo will fit into a youthful, counter-attacking Manchester United side built around rapid transitions. Turning defence into attack within the blink of an eye has been the foundation on which every great United side has been built over the past 30 years, and the introduction of an older, less mobile Ronaldo will affect this strategy. United will need to supplement Ronaldo’s wonderful movement and fine finishing with plenty of crosses and passes and will have to adjust their play to accommodate for his general lack of interest in football played in the first two thirds of the pitch.
This version of Ronaldo offers little in terms of build-up play and even less when it comes to defensive work — Ronaldo averaged 0.2 tackles a game last season for Juventus in Serie A. Contrast this with Bruno Fernandes’s — United’s current talisman — average of 1.5 a game, and it is clear that the team will have to adapt their defensive game to accommodate Ronaldo.
Despite Fernandes’s dazzling performances over the past year-and-a-half, Ronaldo’s return leaves no doubt as to who the main man will be at Manchester United this season. He is the kind of player who demands the team be built around him, who considers every penalty and free-kick an opportunity to further his personal legacy; driven by ego and passion in equal parts, cameras and players are drawn to him almost magnetically.
One worries that his glittering presence may dull the sparkle of United’s other gems. Edison Cavani will likely have to accept that despite not doing much wrong last season as United’s focal point of attack, his game time will be limited this season. Fernandes, stripped of penalties and probably free kicks, will have to adapt his game to that of a full-time creator, something he possesses all the tools for.
These compromises in playing style and personnel will likely feel like no sacrifice at all to the manager and his players, because when you have a generational marksman like Ronaldo at your club — a player who transcends the sport he plays — you make the necessary adjustments to allow him to maximise his influence on games.
Apart from the magical Lionel Messi, no player guarantees you goals like Ronaldo, no player capable of dragging his team kicking and screaming over the victory line in quite the same manner. Doubtless, Solskjær hopes Ronaldo can instil his win-at-all-costs mentality into a squad who have been accused of perhaps being too likeable, too amiable.
Cristiano Ronaldo will certainly score goals at Manchester United, but the price to be paid for those goals remains to be seen. DM