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Has Man United's Cristiano Ronaldo gamble failed?

The Portuguese star has shone individually, but his team are going backwards.

Cristiano Ronaldo (file pic).
Cristiano Ronaldo (file pic).
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

BACK IN August, club legend Gary Neville was adamant Man United needed a big-name signing.

The Red Devils finished second last year, five points ahead of Liverpool, but 12 behind champions Man City.

They had bought Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane earlier in the summer, but it supposedly wasn’t enough.

The logic was that the acquisition of a superstar was the game-changer that United needed to take the team to the next level.

Improving the midfield by going all out to sign West Ham’s Declan Rice would have been some people’s preferred option, but others disagreed.

Harry Kane at the time was being heavily linked with a move to Man City, and Neville specifically had the Tottenham striker in mind as an ideal target at that point.

“I’m struggling to understand why United aren’t going that extra step in this transfer window. [Jadon] Sancho was £70m but that was last year’s money,” Neville said on Sky Sports show Monday Night Football.

“In regards to United, they’ve always gone after the best English or British player in the Premier League, historically.

“Why is [Anthony] Martial, [Daniel] James, [Jesse] Lingard, you’re talking about offloading wages there and potentially getting a transfer fee in, why are they not going in for Harry Kane this week?”

Neville also suggested that Varane and Sancho alone were not capable of getting United to the 90-point mark.

“If City get Kane I think there’s a massive problem for Manchester United.

“I think if Kane went to United, they could get up to 90-95 points,.

“They still need to replace Cavani and Martial next summer. Martial isn’t going to do it, Cavani only has one-year left.

“They’re going to have to buy a centre-forward at some point, why not get the man now and give Ole the impetus he needs to get to that points total?”

Of course, in the end, Kane stayed at Tottenham and whether he would have made a big difference remains open to debate.

Instead, Cristiano Ronaldo became that elite attacker that both clubs ostensibly fought over.

City were also reportedly in for the Portuguese star, and United’s move for him felt as much about combatting their rivals as it was to do with bolstering their own prospects.

The Red Devils’ hierarchy also, it seems, were of a similar mindset to Neville in that they believed a top-class attacker would turn them into genuine title contenders. Other influential figures associated with the club, including Rio Ferdinand and Alex Ferguson, similarly reportedly pushed for the deal and played a behind-the-scenes role in its eventual realisation.

Others were more sceptical. Ronaldo had a phenomenal goalscoring record at Juventus — in Serie A alone, he found the net 81 times in 98 appearances, and his competitive total was 101 goals from 134 games.

So why were the Serie A club seemingly happy enough to offload him?

As with United, Juventus had signed Ronaldo in an attempt to take the team to the next level.

They were already the dominant side in Italy, having won seven successive Serie A titles at the time of his arrival.

The apparent logic was that the acquisition of Ronaldo would bring them elusive Champions League glory. Despite reaching the final in both 2015 and 2017, Juve had not won Europe’s premier club competition since 1996.

Instead, with Ronaldo in the side, Juventus went backwards. 

His first season at the club was both his best and worst. The Turin outfit won the league relatively comfortably on 90 points, but Ronaldo scored 21 goals — the lowest tally he had achieved since his Man United days. The club, meanwhile, bowed out in the Champions League quarter-finals.

The next season was a big improvement personally — a remarkable 31 goals from 33 games. Yet the team suffered by comparison. They only pipped Inter to the title by a point and suffered a round-of-16 exit in the Champions League.

In the third season, Ronaldo continued his incredible scoring feats, with 29 goals in 33 games, but the team increasingly experienced a decline, scraping into the Champions League spots in fourth, while again getting knocked out of Europe’s premier club competition in the round-of-16 phase.

So in his three years at the club, Juventus had become progressively worse with each passing season. That was not all down to Ronaldo, of course, but it also seems fanciful to dismiss this worrying trend as a complete coincidence.

Ronaldo is rightly regarded as one of the best to have ever played the game — his superb stats back that up.

But even at the period widely regarded as his peak — the Real Madrid days — he was not exactly renowned as a team player.

According to Diego Torres’ book ‘The Special One,’ then-Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho had a tempestuous relationship with Ronaldo and once said to him: “You complain that we play defensively. But do you know why we play this way? For you — because you don’t want to defend or cover the wings.”

It also partially explains why Ronaldo won twice as many Champions League trophies (4) as he did league titles (2) during his time in Spain. When individual excellence was required on the big occasion, there was arguably no one better. But over the course of the season, his unimpressive work rate proved detrimental to the team more often than not. Of course, it is also fair to point out that he had the misfortune of co-existing alongside some of the best Barcelona teams to have played the game in any era.

But at least in relation to his Juventus stint, history appears to be repeating itself at Old Trafford.

At 37, there is bound to be a degree of diminishing returns.

Yet Ronaldo’s overall goalscoring record this season — 20 goals from 32 appearances in all competitions — remains hugely impressive.

On the other hand, in the six months since Neville’s comments, the gap between City and United has only become wider.

Last season’s runners-up are now struggling to secure a Champions League spot — they are fourth currently, but Arsenal are four points behind them with three games in hand.

Ronaldo is far from the only problem at the club, but he surely is one.

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“It’s not a big secret that when they lose the ball the reverse gears are not the best from everyone,” Ralph Hasenhuttl said after Southampton’s recent 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, while other opposition coaches have made similar observations this season.

“Imagine being a Manchester United player and having a respected opposition manager say that about you,” Neville tweeted in response.

On a recent Sky Sports podcast, Neville added: “[Last season] I felt as though they were getting closer [to winning the league]. I now feel they’re as far away as ever and I don’t know why that is.”

At their best in the past, United signed big-name players who ultimately elevated them to new heights — Eric Cantona, Rio Ferdinand and Robin van Persie are a couple of notable examples.

Yet modern football is increasingly sophisticated from a tactical viewpoint — systems trump individuals.

One of the reasons Man City and even Liverpool to an extent are successful is because they are not especially reliant on individuals.

Arguably City’s best player, Kevin De Bruyne, has missed a significant number of games through injury in the past and his absence is often barely noticeable.

At United, by contrast, the system revolves around one particular player in Ronaldo, with others expected to compensate for his deficiencies.

It is also one reason why the Etihad outfit’s players regularly tend to be overlooked for individual awards — their excellence is so evenly spread that it is difficult for anyone to stand out. They have won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year just twice in their history, the same number of times that Ronaldo has claimed the gong.

The veteran striker was seen by the United board as a quick-fix solution — instead, he has had the opposite effect, oftentimes exacerbating flaws that already existed.

In his Telegraph column this week, Neville’s Sky colleague Jamie Carragher has recommended that United dispense with Ronaldo’s services in the summer, and there is growing support for that viewpoint.

Ronaldo will almost certainly continue to find the net consistently — he could easily score a pivotal goal against Leeds on Sunday, as he did earlier in the week against Brighton — and these moments of brilliance may even secure Man United a much-needed fourth spot.

However, the key question is whether Ronaldo has left the club in a better place than he found it and the vast majority of evidence suggests not.

Upcoming Premier League fixtures (3pm kick-off unless stated otherwise):

Saturday

West Ham v Newcastle (12.30)
Arsenal v Brentford
Aston Villa v Watford
Brighton v Burnley
Crystal Palace v Chelsea
Liverpool v Norwich
Southampton v Everton
Man City v Tottenham (17.30)

Sunday

Leeds v Man United (14.00)
Wolves v Leicester (16.30)

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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