Selling Ronaldo was suggested in January - now it's Manchester United on the back foot

Selling Ronaldo was suggested in January – now it’s Manchester United on the back foot

Late on Sunday night, only Cristiano Ronaldo truly knew if he would report back for pre-season training with Manchester United today.

As doubts continue to grow about the forward’s future, many at the club — including new manager Erik ten Hag and senior United officials — were left unsure as to whether the Portugal captain would turn up. Well-placed sources insisted Ronaldo would stay away as part of the next step in an exit strategy started when Jorge Mendes met Chelsea and spoke with Bayern Munich.

As cars carrying United players began to drive into Carrington from 7.30am on Monday, Ronaldo was not among them. Shortly before 9am confirmation arrived that Ronaldo was not expected at all. Family reasons had been cited and accepted by the club.

Whether he will report for duty before United fly out for their pre-season tour to Thailand and Australia on Friday is unclear. His attendance on that flight is seen as non-negotiable at this stage.

Then again, he was scheduled to arrive at Carrington on Monday for training along with the other United players who were given an extended break after being on international duty. His no-show followed on from the news on Saturday night that he had asked to leave the Premier League club to pursue a fresh challenge. He wants the promise of Champions League football next season — a development that appears to have caught United off guard.

United maintain that Ronaldo is not for sale and fully expect him to fly to Bangkok, Thailand on Friday for the first stage of the club’s pre-season tour. Much, however, will depend on the talks that are due to take place with Ten Hag upon Ronaldo’s return to training.

Although Ronaldo has communicated to United that he would like to leave if the club receive a fair offer for him this summer, it is understood he has not yet spoken directly to Ten Hag about his future. That conversation will go a long way to deciding whether Ronaldo stays or not.

Ronaldo staying away when the rest of the squad are together for the first time under Ten Hag feels significant. He was though afforded similar leeway when he flew to Portugal in March, once it became clear he would miss the Manchester derby. He reported a recurrence of a hip flexor problem and returned to his homeland without seeking permission, causing surprise in the United dressing room given the significance of the fixture.

From United’s point of view, the expectation is that Ronaldo will see out the final 12 months of his contract but there is an acceptance that Ten Hag may need to persuade Ronaldo to buy into what he is trying to do at United to change the player’s mind.

United believe that Ronaldo has genuine affection for the club, and the hope is that through a face-to-face meeting with Ten Hag — the new manager is holding individual talks with all the first-team players — the forward will rethink his plans and commit to remaining at Old Trafford.

That is the best-case scenario. The worst is that he refuses to change his stance, reiterates his desire to leave, and Ten Hag is left with a major problem on his hands before the pre-season tour of Bangkok, Melbourne and Perth, where Ronaldo’s presence would be required given the appetite of sponsors, but serve as a major distraction.

What is clear is that Ten Hag has been dealt a difficult hand at the start of his tenure, albeit a set of cards that some people at Old Trafford could have predicted a little while ago. The prospect of Ronaldo leaving United was, after all, bubbling away under the surface when the team’s form flatlined under both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and then Ralf Rangnick.

As previously reported by The Athletic, Ronaldo’s United team-mates were left with the impression that the forward would look to move this summer if the club failed to qualify for the Champions League. At the turn of the year, stories emerged about him considering his future.

Rangnick publicly stated that no player should be kept against his will and, privately, went stronger.

On more than one occasion, Rangnick proposed to football director John Murtough and chief executive officer Richard Arnold that Ronaldo be sold, and replaced, during the January transfer window. There were said to be several emails and messages on this topic.

Rangnick felt that as Ronaldo’s time at United was uncertain beyond the end of the season, it made sense to act sooner rather than later to reconfigure the side’s attack. Additionally, Rangnick believed Ronaldo did not represent United’s long-term success and that recruiting a player more suited to his high-pressing style might produce immediate dividends for the second half of the campaign. Murtough and Arnold resisted.

Rangnick suggested selling Ronaldo in January (Photo: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Nevertheless, Rangnick used his press conferences to make clear his ideas on the direction United should take — and insisted a new striker ought to be signed even if Ronaldo remained. Six months later and United find themselves on the back foot.

When The Athletic reported a week ago that the new Chelsea co-owner Todd Boehly held a meeting in Portugal with Mendes, the agent who represents Ronaldo, and that the idea of the forward switching to Stamford Bridge was discussed, it was perceived in some quarters as a clear attempt to put pressure on United to make signings. Saturday’s development made it clear that Mendes was not playing any games.

In the eyes of some, the Ronaldo situation is not black and white. There is a theory that Ronaldo’s departure could help more than hinder Ten Hag’s rebuild. It is an argument that is not without merit, given how challenging it is for any coach to accommodate Ronaldo — the 2022 model — in a tactical system that plays to the strengths of the collective.

At this stage of his career, Ronaldo is going to play his way. While that guarantees goals — he was United’s top scorer last season with 24 in all competitions — there are legitimate questions to be asked about the benefits of starting a new era with an individualistic forward who turns 38 in February.

There is a bigger picture, too, that transcends Ronaldo’s direct influence on the team and shines a light on the extent to which his presence has sometimes inhibited those around him. Sources close to United players told The Athletic that Ronaldo’s exit would “liberate” some of his team-mates and allow them to express themselves again, almost as if weight would be lifted from their shoulders.

United’s stance on all of this is rather different. As far as the club are concerned, there is no silver lining to the news that Ronaldo wants out and they are adamant that he will not be leaving Old Trafford this summer.

Furthermore, his position was not considered to be a priority when United drew up their list of areas to target this summer — centre-back and central midfield chief among them — and they have neither the finance nor a plan in place to recruit a forward who would promise a similar goal return to Ronaldo.

Indeed, United’s recruitment strategy so far reflects Ten Hag’s planning and vision for the team; a vision that included Ronaldo being the focal point of the attack next season. As a result, United have not actively pursued a striker in this window and missed out on bidding for potential targets. Darwin Nunez, for example, ended up joining Liverpool from Benfica for £64 million rising to a potential £85 million.

Some close to United are doubtful as to whether Ronaldo already has a move lined up. Others with intimate knowledge of how the transfer market works, and in particular how Mendes operates, find it difficult to believe that Ronaldo’s agent would act in this way without knowing that a club is seriously interested. “He wouldn’t want to embarrass himself,” said one source close to United.

Realistically, though, it is hard to see many takers for Ronaldo this summer, bearing in mind his salary demands — he is earning £500,000 a week at Old Trafford — the state of the European transfer market, his age and the fact that he is so hard to integrate into a team framework.

On the face of it, Chelsea are his only option in England, yet it is easy to understand why their manager Thomas Tuchel would not be anything like as enthused about the prospect of signing Ronaldo as Boehly, even if he badly needs a forward to lead the line.


Might a return to Italy be on the cards for Ronaldo? (Photo: Giuseppe Cottini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Beyond that, Paris Saint-Germain have said that they “don’t want flashy, bling-bling anymore”, while Bayern Munich is a non-starter. It is understood that the Bundesliga champions briefly discussed Ronaldo and realised almost in the same breath that the transfer didn’t make sense.

All of which leaves the possibility of a return to La Liga, which seems highly unlikely, or Italy, where Ronaldo spent three years with Juventus, scoring 100 goals for the club faster than any player in their history, before re-signing for United last summer.

Although tax breaks in Italy alleviate part of the burden of taking on Ronaldo’s huge wages, Serie A is on its knees after the pandemic. With the top clubs running up huge losses, the biggest deal for cash in the summer window so far (excluding options to make loans permanent) is the €12 million (£10.3 million) Sassuolo are spending on Agustin Alvarez from Penarol.

Could Napoli make a deal for Ronaldo work? They are back in the Champions League, which ticks that box, but they’re also cutting costs. Aurelio De Laurentiis, Napoli’s owner, was dismissive of the idea of Edinson Cavani returning to the club. “Signing a goalkeeper at 34, 35, 36 is fine,” De Laurentiis said. “Signing a striker that age isn’t.”

Ronaldo isn’t the future for United either. But Ten Hag needs to work quickly to find a way of replacing his goals if there’s no way back.

Additional contributor: James Horncastle

(Top photo: David S Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

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