For all the positivity emanating from Manchester United this summer, there will be only one topic dominating Erik ten Hag’s first Carrington news conference on Friday.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s future, almost certainly, will be top of the agenda. Then, questions about his early exit following the friendly against Rayo Vallecano. Next, there’s likely to be an inquiry about Ten Hag’s animated touchline conversation with Ronaldo during the 1-1 draw with the Spanish side on Sunday, before the debate moves on to the Portuguese striker’s role in the team this season. Everyone knows that he can score, but can he press? Or, more pertinently, does he want to?
Ten Hag made a point during the preseason tour of Thailand and Australia of putting football before any other distractions, but with Ronaldo back in town — marked by his “Sunday, the king is back” social media posts — that is easier said than done.
Setting to one side the polarising opinions about whether Ronaldo the player has helped or hindered United since his return to the club a year ago, there can be little doubt that the noise around the 37-year-old this summer is something Ten Hag, newly installed as manager, could do without. Still, there remains some confusion around Old Trafford about how it has reached this point at all.
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Ronaldo’s representatives, led by agent Jorge Mendes, have let it be known he wants to leave citing a desire to play in the Champions League. But in May, with United already out of the running for a place in the top four, Ronaldo was happy to do an interview about Ten Hag’s appointment and his hopes for the new season.
“What I know about him is he did a fantastic job for Ajax, that he’s an experienced coach,” he said. “We are happy and excited, not only as players, but the supporters as well. I wish him the best and let’s believe that, next year, we are going to win trophies.”
According to sources, Ronaldo doesn’t agree to interviews easily — even with MUTV, the club’s in-house television station — and so it was curious to some staff members that a month later he had changed his tune.
With a year left on his contract and a weekly wage in excess of £500,000, there are those at United who believe Ronaldo never expected to move; Instead, the threat is designed to pressure the Glazers into showing more ambition in the transfer market. It’s been viewed as significant, for example, that he played a willing role in United’s media day at Carrington on Tuesday and although he didn’t take part in any interviews, he visited every broadcaster’s station to pose in the shirt. Sources have told ESPN that he did n’t give the impression of someone who he has already checked out.
So far, United have insisted Ronaldo is not for sale, a point emphasized more than once by Ten Hag, who has even suggested his contract could be extended beyond the end of next season. There are question marks about whether Ronaldo fits the Dutchman’s style — he says he wants his team to “press all day,” and the stats show Ronaldo doesn’t do that — but to let him leave would be to remove guaranteed goals from a team that does not score many.
Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have both had 20-goal seasons, but managed just six last term between them. Sources have told ESPN that United looked at signing Darwin Nunez, but when he chose to join Liverpool, they switched their focus to finding a “versatile” forward who can play across the front line rather than an out-and-out No. 9. There is interest in Ajax’s Antony and Red Bull Salzburg Benjamin Sesko, but in both cases valuations are proving problematic.
Even with Ronaldo reintegrated into the squad, Ten Hag believes he’s still one attacking player short. Speaking last week, Ten Hag said that after a summer training alone while he dealt with a “family issue,” Ronaldo is “definitely not on the level of our current squad,” and as things stand, it will be Martial leading the line against Brighton on Sunday. The Frenchman has impressed during the summer schedule, but he last scored a competitive goal for United in October and struggled on loan at Sevilla last season.
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Ten Hag has dealt admirably with the Ronaldo sideshow, but the circus has kicked up a notch since his return to Manchester last week. Ralf Rangnick found during his time in charge that Ronaldo isn’t afraid to put pressure on his manager. Sources have told ESPN that on one occasion, he asked Rangnick to change his tactics to incorporate another striker in an effort to replicate a system he thought had suited his strengths at Juventus. Rangnick refused, and it did not go down well with United’s No.7.
Of all the challenges facing Ten Hag, managing Ronaldo — both in the dressing room and on the pitch — will be one of the biggest. The United boss needs Ronaldo’s goals, but none of the fuss, if he’s going to make his first year at Old Trafford a success.