Thursday, July 25, 2024

Cristiano Ronaldo’s exile from Manchester United’s squad is the easy part for manager Erik ten Hag

There is still the not insignificant matter of a trip to Stamford Bridge to come, but right now Erik ten Hag might be entitled to view this as his best week in the Manchester United job so far. It was not just the swashbuckling 2-0 win over Tottenham, plenty enough to get supporters buying into what their new head coach wants to achieve at Old Trafford. Though the entire Cristiano Ronaldo affair might be enough to try the patience of a saint, this week’s rupture point gave Ten Hag a chance to stamp his authority on the club. He seized it with both hands. The only question now is whether he can make this decisive moment stick. 

It is easy to cast Ronaldo out from the first team when the goals are flowing, quite another thing to have the courage of one’s convictions if Chelsea, West Ham or Aston Villa prove hard to score against. For now, however, Ten Hag is winning the power struggle. Club sources are insistent that they will back their manager to the hilt on this stance. There appears to be little sense of a base within the club that are backing Ronaldo. That is no wonder after the events of this week and the months prior to Wednesday’s fissure point.

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Ronaldo had refused to enter the fray against Spurs as a substitute, so he was instructed to train away from the first team. It was not the first time that he left staff, teammates and supporters the image of beating a hasty retreat. He left early in a friendly against Rayo Vallecano in July having missed much of pre-season where he and his agent Jorge Mendes were pushing to leave Old Trafford more permanently.

Ronaldo will not be part of the travelling squad to face Chelsea on Saturday. His exile will last at least until the end of the week. One might speculate as to whether it would be longer if the subsequent game were not a Europa League tie against Sheriff that is likely to see the fringe elements of Manchester United’s squad take the field. Their No.7 belongs firmly in that group now.

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“I am here to manage [the situation],” Ten Hag told his pre-match press conference. “I am responsible for the top culture here. I have to set the standards and values and control them. We are a team and we have standards and values.

“Rayo Vallecano wasn’t acceptable, but he wasn’t the only one. The second time has consequences. We will miss him tomorrow, and it is a miss for the squad, but it is important for the attitude and mentality for the group.”

His precise comments on the situation were a marked contrast to the vagueness of Cristiano Ronaldo, who acknowledged on Thursday night that “sometimes the heat of the moment gets the best of us” without actually stating that he had refused to come on for the club that he says he will now be supporting from afar. “United we stand” he insisted after weeks and months where he has attempted to set himself aside from his manager and team mates.

This week’s events, however, will not be an end point. At the very earliest that is unlikely to come until January and the reopening of a transfer market that had precious little interest in Ronaldo off the back of a season where he ranked as the Premier League’s third highest scorer. It is hard to see how recent events will have kindled an interest in Napoli or Atletico Madrid, let alone Europe’s biggest names, that was not really there to begin with. CBS Sports revealed in August that one of the two Saudi Arabian clubs to have expressed an interest in Ronaldo would be ready to revive their interest in the new year, though they would acknowledge they face an uphill battle to convince him to move.

Even if a contract termination were to emerge as an option, the past experience of other clubs in a similar position suggests Ronaldo would need a landing spot before United could hit the button on the ejector seat. After all, Arsenal had made clear to Mesut Ozil as early as the summer of 2019 that he was welcome to leave if he could find a suitor. It took two years before those two ended an icy union.

Arsenal’s experience with Ozil and, to a lesser extent Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, offers illumination into what comes next. For now things are rosy. Ten Hag has stamped his authority on the situation just as Unai Emery did early in his tenure. But then the Spaniard needed a spark plug in his offense and the club’s best player came in from the cold. For all that Ozil’s semi-frequent returns to the starting XI could engender a bit of fizz they came at the cost of the head coach’s authority. Sources close to the former Germany international never doubted that he would outlast the head coach.

The contrast could not be more stark with Mikel Arteta, who on occasion seemed to be cutting off his nose to spite his face when it came to star players. As Arsenal hovered above the relegation zone in the winter of 2020, Ozil was subtweeting the manager from afar. Questions over the Gunners lack of creativity were a continual refrain at London Colney but this time there was no buckling. The same happened with Aubameyang, where Arteta effectively forced his superiors to rip up the contract of his only reliable goalscorer. 

Aubameyang might have complained soon after that his former manager can’t deal with “big characters and big players” but Arteta seems to be getting plenty out of those still standing. And should anyone test the authority of the manager at London Colney in the future they can be relatively confident as to what the outcome would be.

The question for Ten Hag, then, is whether he will be more Emery or Arteta. It is easy to show the intractability of the former when you have just won 2-0 against a rival for top four. But what happens if Marcus Rashford, who has scored in just two of 10 Premier League games this season even if his form has improved, wastes the chances to win United a few big games? Or, indeed, if he suffers an injury?

Ten Hag has not closed the door to Ronaldo entirely and labelled him an “important part of the squad,” a stance that will be shared by the United hierarchy at least until any interested suitors emerge. But it serves no-one’s interests for the spotlight on the Portuguese superstar to be made any brighter by him being in the side one week, out the next. Ronaldo has handed his manager an opportunity for a clean break. You could not blame him if he took it.

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