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Is Cristiano Ronaldo a good fit for Man United?

The Portuguese superstar is expected to make his second debut for the club against Newcastle on Saturday.

Cristiano Ronaldo pictured during his first Man United spell.
Cristiano Ronaldo pictured during his first Man United spell.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

IN THE TIME since Alex Ferguson stepped down as manager, Man United have often been accused of prioritising glamorous big-money signings at the expense of long-term progress.

Having just bought Cristiano Ronaldo, some critics have claimed they are merely repeating mistakes of the past.

Yet at least some thought will have been put into the last-minute recruitment of the Portuguese superstar during the summer transfer window.

The board will not have been oblivious to all the issues surrounding the Ronaldo move, including his age, the tactical problems posed by his conspicuous immobility over 90 minutes, the reported €560,000-a-week wages, the Kathryn Mayorga allegations (which you can read about in more detail here), other areas of the pitch ostensibly being in greater need of strengthening and the possibility that he could harm the development of talented younger players in the team who could now be confined to the periphery of the squad.

Man United have been in this position before and the results have been varied.

Following the 2011-12 Premier League season, after they had agonisingly lost the title to City on goal difference, the club were badly in need of a boost.

In response, they paid a reported £24 million to prise Robin van Persie from rivals Arsenal.

There was a degree of risk attached to the move. The Dutch star was already 29 and had struggled with injury at times during his Gunners career.

Yet if you were to make the judgement based on the previous campaign alone, Van Persie was as close to a surefire hit as possible. He had scored 44 goals in 57 games for club and country, earning both the Professional Footballers’ Association and Football Writers’ player of the year as a result.

The move, at least in the short term, proved a big success. Van Persie played all 38 games in that first season, with his 26 goals a significant factor in United regaining the title that they have failed to win since.

However, you could also argue Van Persie was one of the reasons behind United’s subsequent dramatic decline. With Ferguson no longer in charge, the next two injury-interrupted campaigns saw him score a relatively disappointing (by his standards) 22 goals in 48 appearances, as the Red Devils struggled on and off the pitch.

A more recent and perhaps more relevant comparison is the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. 

In the summer of 2016, United snapped up the Swede, who at 34, was younger then than Ronaldo is now.

It was a free transfer but Ibrahimovic didn’t come cheap, given that his wages were a reported £200,000 a week.

Expectations were high. At the time of the move, Zlatan had scored 392 goals in 677 games and won a trophy in every season of his career since 2001, including 13 league titles.

On the one hand, Ibrahimovic did what he was expected to do — he scored goals, with 17 in 28 Premier League matches a tally most strikers would be satisfied with. 

Yet United still looked further away than ever from challenging for the title, finishing sixth that season, albeit the League Cup and Europa League were not bad consolation prizes.

But even a die-hard United fan will admit the Ibrahimovic transfer did not really make them a better team, as indicated by the fact that they agreed to terminate his contract during an injury-hit second season.

Of course, Ronaldo at his best is superior to either Van Persie or Ibrahimovic in the aforementioned eras, but the lesson from those experiences, it seemed, was that signing a proven goalscorer will virtually guarantee goals, but it will not necessarily make the collective stronger in the long run.

So where does this leave the current United side?

Alex Ferguson was reportedly integral in persuading the 36-year-old to turn down rivals Man City in favour of United, and simply stopping the Etihad outfit from adding the star to their squad looks to have been one of the main motivations behind the move.

Ferguson will surely have been thinking of the impact of Van Persie more so than Ibrahimovic in his successful attempts to influence the deal.

And sometimes football really can be as simple as paying the most money for the best players to secure success.

But there is still considerable doubts that exist in this instance. 

Ronaldo, like most great players, has a big ego. Dropping or even substituting him at certain times will likely cause a big stir.

He is a man for the big occasion, as someone with five Champions League winners’ medals inevitably will be.

Yet you could argue for such a brilliant talent, he has underachieved in terms of league triumphs. He won La Liga just twice in nine seasons with Real Madrid. In the years before he arrived, Juve won seven successive Serie A titles. Yet that run ended during his three seasons at the club, with Inter claiming the title last year and their rivals having to be content with an underwhelming fourth-place finish.

Moreover, the logic behind signing Ronaldo was seemingly to turn the Turin outfit from nearly men to winners of the Champions League.

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The club earned two runners-up medals in four seasons before he joined. In the three seasons, after he arrived, they had one quarter-final defeat and two round-of-16 exits.

At international level too in recent times, despite breaking the all-time scoring record memorably against Ireland the other week, his success has not been unqualified.

He was the joint top scorer at Euro 2020 and second only to Harry Kane in terms of goals at the 2018 World Cup, yet Portugal were disappointing, suffering round-of-16 exits on both occasions.

So increasingly in the later years of his career, the recurring theme has been Ronaldo continuing to score prolifically but his teams underperforming by comparison. The Red Devils will, needless to say, hope this trend does not continue.

The Old Trafford outfit will no doubt take the optimistic view and argue in the case of Juventus for example, that other factors were more to blame for their diminishing returns, such as the ill-advised decision to hire an inexperienced coach in Andrea Pirlo.

But given the money they are paying him, United will certainly expect their star man to at the very least, play an instrumental role in ending almost a decade of hurt since Ferguson left. Anything else will be deemed a failure.

Upcoming fixtures (games kick off at 3pm unless stated otherwise):

Crystal Palace v Tottenham (12.30)
Arsenal v Norwich City
Brentford v Brighton
Leicester v Man City
Man United v Newcastle
Southampton v West Ham
Watford v Wolves
Chelsea v Aston Villa (17.30)

Sunday

Leeds v Liverpool (16.30)

Monday

Everton v Burnley (20.00)

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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