Alamy Stock Photo Cristiano Ronaldo (file pic).
Cristiano Ronaldo dilemma contains echoes of Roy Keane's infamous Old Trafford exit
The Man United star was dropped for last Monday’s match with Liverpool.

ROY KEANE appeared on Gary Neville’s Soccerbox during the week and the show aired directly after the Man United-Liverpool Premier League clash on Monday.

One of the more interesting parts of the programme was when the discussion turned to the Corkonian’s final days at the club with whom he won an incredible seven Premier League titles.

Of course, Keane’s contract at Old Trafford was infamously terminated on 18 November 2005 in a move supposedly sparked by an explosive MUTV interview in which he harshly criticised several players, although the former Ireland international has since suggested the controversy was simply a convenient excuse to promptly get an ageing and combustible player out the door.

But Neville asked Keane about a hypothetical scenario in which that blow-up did not occur. The midfielder was 34 at the time. Could he have emulated the likes of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs by adapting to a new role as a squad member where he would not start every game and be used somewhat sparingly in his later years?

Keane did not give a definitive answer to this question but his reasoning with himself that he may have agreed to this state of affairs seemed unconvincing.

There are certain footballers unwilling to be bit-part players, who must be number one at their club. Keane appeared to be one of those individuals.

Now, 17 years after that sudden departure, another club legend who has served the Red Devils so well could be on the brink of an exit.

Whatever happens between now and the end of his career, like Keane, Cristiano Ronaldo will be remembered as one of Manchester United’s greatest ever players.

But also like Keane, there has been an inevitable sense of somewhat diminishing returns as he grows older.

As with the Irishman, his presence in a dressing room is impossible to ignore. His drive and talent make him an inspiration to impressionable young players and he can turn games in his team’s favour by sheer dint of personality and refusal to accept defeat.

But now as they did with Keane, United may soon come to the definitive conclusion with Ronaldo that the cons are starting to outweigh the pros.

Inspirational but domineering footballers can quickly start to seem overbearing when their talent begins to wane.

And Ronaldo’s prowess on the field has naturally been decreasing for quite some time. The fact that he is still operating at such a high level is extraordinary in itself — in February, he turns 38.

Granted, if you were to judge the Portuguese star purely on stats, last year’s move would seem a great success — 18 goals from 30 games in 2021-22 is an impressive return. It was better than Harry Kane managed and only eclipsed by Son Heung-min and Mo Salah, both hailed as two of the best players of the campaign.

Yet it also happened to be Ronaldo’s joint-lowest goal return since the 2006-07 season, when he registered a marginally inferior return of 17 goals in 34 appearances for United.

And other than goals, the former Real Madrid man offers very little at this stage in his career. Understandably given his age, he struggles to provide energy or do much in the way of pressing. His assists also tend to be low — three last season, compared with Salah’s 13, for instance.

2021-22 was also Man United’s worst-ever Premier League season in a number of respects. It was their lowest points tally (58), their fewest wins (16) and their most goals conceded (57). They were also widely regarded by opponents as the easiest team to play through.

Moreover, only two teams finishing in the top 10 scored fewer than their 57 goals.

So while Ronaldo did okay individually, those around him were severely underperforming.

Compare it to the previous campaign before the Portugal international’s arrival. The Red Devils finished second in the table, behind only Man City. There was a sense that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was building something promising.

Is it a coincidence that their collapse occurred in conjunction with Ronaldo’s arrival? Hardly.

United at their best under Solskjaer did not control games against their biggest rivals. Instead, they hit teams on the counter-attack at speed while working extremely hard in defence when they didn’t have the ball — essentially what happened against Liverpool during the week.

These tactics also gave their slower defenders like Harry Maguire a degree of protection, as they were generally not required to play a high line.

Ronaldo’s subsequent signing undermined the whole system. They could no longer attack so effectively and with lightning speed on the break while also accommodating a player well into his 30s.

Yet Solskjaer and others were not strong enough to act in the best interests of the team by shunning the lure of celebrity and star power.

It seems, however, that Erik ten Hag has belatedly learned from his predecessors’ mistakes.

Ronaldo was dropped amid a 2-1 victory for Man United against Liverpool on Monday — the best performance United have produced in quite some time. He had started the previous match, a 4-0 defeat to Brentford — their worst performance in quite some time.

You get the sense that like Keane, Ronaldo is not a footballer who would be content to regularly sit on the bench over the course of the season. He is surely too much of an egotist and perfectionist to allow it on a regular basis between now and the end of his contract, which expires at the end of this campaign.

Even when he came on in the dying moments against Liverpool, it was not a good fit — the hosts needed a team player who would hold the ball up and slow the game to run the clock down, but Ronaldo, by attempting a speculative effort from distance, did the opposite.

Publicly, Ten Hag was diplomatic, suggesting afterwards that the striker, along with another high-profile absentee in Maguire still had a future at the club.

Yet reports indicate the manager would be willing to let the star leave, and it is the club’s owners, the Glazers, who are understood to be most keen for Ronaldo to stick around, particularly given his commercial appeal.

One of the great failings of Man United post-Ferguson has been their obsession with nostalgia as well as their prioritisation of commercial factors over footballing decisions. Their eagerness to repeat the way things were in the past rather than embracing more modern ways of thinking is an attitude that led to the appointment of their legendary player Solskjaer among other mistakes.

By offloading Ronaldo, Ten Hag would not only ensure a better dressing room environment and increase the likelihood of improved results, but it could also serve to symbolise a new Manchester United who are finally willing to leave the past behind.

And in a way, they would also be emulating the past. Ferguson seldom hesitated amid the slightest signs one of his star players was becoming more of a liability than an asset — not just Keane, but David Beckham, Paul Ince, Mark Hughes among many other obvious examples.

United and Ten Hag must be equally ruthless now in casting aside one of the club’s all-time greats.

The deafening silence around Europe when it became known he wanted to leave suggests it won’t be easy, and the premature termination of his contract a la Keane could be the only viable solution at this stage.

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