After Manchester United’s inspiring victory over Tottenham, Cristiano Ronaldo threatened to overshadow one of Erik ten Hag’s most successful days as manager, signalling that there was still more trouble ahead.
You could have been excused for thinking the No. 7’s tantrum down the tunnel was the last thing he would ever do at Old Trafford when it was later revealed that he had refused to enter the game.
Ten Hag handled the situation deftly, but by downplaying the idea of player power, he firmly established the law and established who was in charge. Ronaldo was made to pay. Fined, forced to train alone, and excluded from the trip to Chelsea.
However, there was a path back. Ronaldo expressed regret for his behaviour, rejoined the team, and appeared reenergized against FC Sheriff, persevering to net his third United goal of the season.
Ten Hag had made his authority known and appeared to have persuaded Ronaldo to change his demeanour. Not bad overall. The next three games, however, took place after that.
When Jadon Sancho, Antony, and Anthony Martial were all injured, the manager had no choice but to start Ronaldo in every game due to the lack of attacking options.
Despite victories over Real Sociedad and West Ham, they were tense and by a small margin. Against Spurs and Chelsea, United’s attack was electric and pulsating, but it had since become uninspired and static.
Then came the trip to Villa Park on Sunday. A far cry from his status as a pariah just over two weeks earlier, Ronaldo was given the armband in the absence of Harry Maguire and Bruno Fernandes, but he was once more completely ineffective.
Ronaldo’s lack of movement and pressing, as it has been since his return to Manchester, leaves the team flat because it lacks energy and vigour, but at least he was still scoring last season.
That is no longer the case. It appeared for a while that he would never lose it, but everyone moves on. Chances that he would typically take care of with his eyes closed are now ballooning over the bar or missing the mark entirely.
Although Ronaldo is widely regarded as the best goal scorer of all time and his sensational return of well over 800 goals attests to that, he is currently finding fans’ heads more often than the top corner. Even the best cannot remain at the top indefinitely.
Ronaldo’s recent run has conclusively shown that United is a worse team when he starts. In those games, Ten Hag had little choice but to start him, but Martial is back now.
It is unknown how long the Frenchman will be injury-free, but in the few minutes this season that he has played, he has been far more effective than the Portuguese in front of goal.
Additionally, he has made United appear to be a much more dynamic attacking unit thanks to his pace, positioning, and link-up play.
His direct and powerful cameo against Liverpool, which was essential to securing the victory, exemplified everything United can strive to be at their best. If only he could continue to be active.
More of a chance than his performances had deserved, Ronaldo was given a chance to atone for his on-field behaviour against Tottenham, but he didn’t take it.
He might not have another opportunity to do so with the January transfer window approaching and with it the chance to finally put an end to this messy situation.
Ronaldo’s storied career at Manchester United now fittingly reflects the player himself: much better in the past.