Cristiano Ronaldo was left out of Man United’s squad for their draw at Chelsea on Saturday after refusing to come on as a sub in their previous match against Spurs; he had been doing individual sessions with fitness coaches at Carrington, before returning to first team training on Tuesday
Twenty-five minutes before kick-off at Stamford Bridge, as the players put the finishing touches on their warm-up, the pitch-side conversation was dominated by an absent presence.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s petulance in the dying minutes against Tottenham last Wednesday meant he was not part of United’s matchday squad against Chelsea at the weekend.
That kind of behaviour, as one figure from the home club pointed out, was precisely why Thomas Tuchel stood so firm – partly in detriment to his job security – to ensure the stadium did not become the 37-year-old’s Champions League landing spot.
Chelsea’s co-owner and acting sporting director, Todd Boehly, was seduced by the “commercial and entertainment lure” of Ronaldo after meeting his agent Jorge Mendes in June.
A special deck was commissioned for that gathering in Portugal, which illustrated the marketing phenomenon of the ‘Cristiano effect.’
The document had detailed every significant off-pitch metric that was enhanced for United by Ronaldo’s re-signing – from their announcement of the deal being the most-liked post by a sports team in social media history, supreme spikes in sponsorship analysis, to the increased desire for business in emerging markets.
Mendes would flag how the joint-biggest club in the world, by his measurement on par with Real Madrid, was still growing rapidly owing to his client – just as La Liga’s giants had.
The message was simply: Ronaldo sells. A fading force perhaps, but still financial gold. Boehly liked the statement of the new ownership reeling in one of the game’s greatest players, a megastar, an icon whose social following and brand eclipses Chelsea’s.
The footnote was that Ronaldo, having ended 2021/22 as United’s top scorer, hitting 24 in all competitions, was a guarantee of goals.
Tuchel did not want him and made it clear to Boehly that Chelsea did not need him. Every day, every story, every game would be about Ronaldo – and as one club employee joked, ‘CFC’ would have become code for ‘Cristiano FC.’
While an admirer of his career and achievements, Tuchel believed there was no footballing reason to incorporate Ronaldo into a progressive side that favoured a fluid, dynamic attack.
He also stressed the added attention, commercial uplift and social growth would not be worth the management hassle. Tuchel’s mentor, Ralf Rangnick, had already endured the pains of trying to incorporate a larger-than-life Ronaldo into a team-first approach at United.
It was complete failure. There was Ronaldo’s public annoyance at being substituted in a 3-1 win over Brentford in January, an awkward talk with Rangnick – without Harry Maguire present – in which the Portuguese stressed the captain should be dropped, and an unsanctioned trip to Portugal after informing the club doctor he had a hip-flexor injury.
That was all after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had lost the wheel, which he has privately reflected to ex-team-mates was in part due to the ‘Individual FC’ tag that was crystallised with Ronaldo.
Everything had to go through him. He was the game-plan, and while Ronaldo met that with goals, the underlying numbers of fellow attackers and the team in general suffered. He was brilliant, nostalgically so, at the expense of the collective.
Solskjaer’s command was in question over Ronaldo. When he left him out of the XI in a draw against Everton, a clip emerged of Sir Alex Ferguson telling MMA fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov “you should always start your best players.”
Ronaldo angrily walked straight towards the tunnel at the final whistle, swearing in his native tongue, which prompted an overflow of takes afterwards.
Tuchel could not understand why Chelsea would want to assume and save United from these problems.
At Stamford Bridge on Saturday, staff from the home side reflected that he was right. Graham Potter is understood to be in alignment with his predecessor’s position.
Ronaldo, naturally, is struggling with the adjustment from main man, Ballon d’Or deity and the axis around which a team spins. It must be an incredibly jarring experience no matter how much he would have considered the concept of time.
He is human, in an existence that often sketched him as supernatural. Ronaldo has also suffered immense personal tragedy amid this transition.
We need to be mindful of this. Unfortunately, he needs to be mindful of the professional reality of learning how to be pivotal without being all-powerful. No top club will funnel their on-pitch ambitions through him anymore. No top club made a move this summer, despite Mendes’ heavy pitching.
Even the old trick of playing clubs off against each other – leaking chats with Bayern Munich, Napoli, Atletico Madrid and a list of others – was no treat.
The blinder of using Manchester City to bait United into a late move in August 2021 (even though the latter insist they did a check on him earlier that summer) could not be replicated. Eyes are now wide open.
There is little faith the situation around interest will change in January and so Ronaldo has to learn how to collaborate and contribute in a squad role at Old Trafford.
‘Ronaldo is not in a battle against Ten Hag, he’s in a battle against himself’
Erik ten Hag’s decision to discipline Ronaldo for refusing to come on against Tottenham and subsequently leaving the stadium before full-time had nothing to do with flexing his authority.
It was an act of upholding standards and proving that no player will be indulged when flouting the rules.
Any attempt to frame it otherwise – take note Piers Morgan and Kevin Pietersen – ignores the high-definition picture.
Ten Hag would have much rather preferred not to have been pushed into such a decision. Ronaldo not only challenged the manager’s control of the culture he is trying to implement, but also made the trip to Chelsea more challenging.
He would have been a helpful option off the bench on Saturday but his behaviour dominated, plus it was distracting in the build-up to the fixture.
Having been wowed by Ten Hag’s focus on discipline in his opening weeks in charge, continuously referencing how much it was needed at United during media interviews, the senior leadership group believed punishment was necessary for Ronaldo.
The Dutchman had already been unequivocal that exiting the stadium early was “unacceptable” following the 1-1 friendly draw with Rayo Vallecano in July.
Ronaldo and Dalot were among those pictured departing Old Trafford prior to full-time, with Ten Hag stressing: “We are a team. A squad. Until the end we stay together.”
In the aftermath of that, United’s manager tried to protect Ronaldo by hitting out at journalists who focused solely on his ill-judgement: “It wasn’t just Cristiano.”
That has been a theme. When questions have been asked about the Portugal international agitating for an exit, Ten Hag has repeatedly stated the value he offers to the squad. He has never exposed Ronaldo.
During United’s pre-season tour that the veteran sat out, Ten Hag would remind his audience it was for personal reasons whenever the subject arose.
When the forward did return to Carrington for training, the manager chose to highlight how hard he was working instead of feeding the fact he wanted a transfer.
Despite never before dealing with a figure as popular, esteemed, and who generates an emotive pull on a global scale such as Ronaldo, Ten Hag has played the situation perfectly.
The 52-year-old has impressively found a balance between doing what is best for the team, standing by the club’s position, reaffirming what is expected of someone who pulls on the shirt, undoing a toxic tradition of over-indulgence at United – all without ostracising Ronaldo.
Even in admonishing his behaviour, Ten Hag circled: “We miss him. For the squad it’s a miss.”
Ronaldo’s social post in response to his punishment did not contain an apology of any sort. He accepted “sometimes the heat of the moment gets the best of us” and vowed to “support my team-mates and be ready for everything in any given game.”
There is no other option. Ronaldo is not in a battle with Ten Hag: the manager’s power is total. He is at war with the player he was and the one he currently needs to be.
This time there is no early exit route from Old Trafford. There is no Champions League club desperate to have him. And even if his contract was mutually terminated with his salary demands severely reduced, he would not be a guaranteed starter at an elite club.
United’s future is carved from Ten Hag’s vision. Ronaldo has to decide what portrait he wants to paint moving forward.
How does the Ronaldo situation get resolved?
Portuguese football expert Pedro Sepulveda tells:
“I think it’s obvious that there is a need for ‘RnR’ [rest and recuperation] between Cristiano Ronaldo and Erik ten Hag. The people at Manchester United have to do something for the future of the club.
“It’s impossible to have this kind of conflict during the rest of the season if United want to fight to achieve their objectives.
“It’s obvious Ronaldo is not happy at Old Trafford and it’s obvious that Ten Hag is not dealing well with the pressure of winning at United whilst with the added pressure of Ronaldo and having a player of his stature on the bench.
“I can’t see Ronaldo leaving United in the winter transfer window. We had throughout the summer the stories that Ronaldo would go to Germany or another club in England or another club in Portugal.
“None of those stories had a solid base so who will offer a contract to the player who has caused conflict now during the first half of the season?
“I’m not saying that Ronaldo is guilty as I don’t agree with some of the decisions Ten Hag made but the player is not dealing well with the end of his career. It is a conflict that needs a resolution but it’s one that needs to be made by the club, and one that goes above the manager.
“Jorge Mendes needs to find a resolution for the situation but it’s not easy given the clubs and the projects that are available to him. United won’t want to sell him for a cheap price in January as his salary isn’t low.”