OLD TRAFFORD, MANCHESTER — Cristiano Ronaldo looked keen to spend as long as possible with his adoring public. He was the last Manchester United player to finish Monday’s lap of honour at Old Trafford that was more pleasant than anyone had any right to expect.
United won their final home game of the season 3-0 against Brentford, with Ronaldo winning and converting a second-half penalty to crown an excellent all-round performance.
As he took in the applause afterwards, Ronaldo appeared to mouth to a Sky television camera: “I’m not finished”. Of course, he is not the only person whose opinion matters in this instance
“The way that he played again tonight, not only because he scored a goal – he also won the penalty and helped defensively – why should he not be a player who could still be part of the squad and help the team?” said interim manager Ralf Rangnick after leading United in front of the Stretford End for the last time on a night of farewells.
“But this is a question you have to ask Erik [ten Hag] once he’s here and it’s also important how Cristiano himself sees his role and his position.”
Speculation has been rife over Ronaldo’s future since Ajax boss Ten Hag agreed to take the reins at Old Trafford. A 37-year-old forward not noted for his work off the ball will surely not fit within the Dutchman’s whirring interpretation of Total Football?
On the other hand, he was supposed to be the antithesis of Rangnick’s gegenpressing school and he has proved to be the German tactician’s most effective player. United’s only two wins in the nine games heading into the Brentford encounter each came about because of Ronaldo hat-tricks.
Similarly, Ronaldo fitted perfectly with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s “United DNA” schtick, as someone who got “this club” and played for “The Boss” (Alex Ferguson, not Bruce Springsteen, to be absolutely clear).
Yet, his jarring early season introduction ripped all the uneven contradictions of Solskjaer’s high-energy/low-concept side out into the open and a popular but limited coach had a reign that looked set to leave strong foundations reduced to ruins.
Welcome to the modern Manchester United, where nothing makes sense.
Is Juan Mata leaving Manchester United?
Ronaldo enjoyed linking with Juan Mata against Brentford, the sight of the Spain playmaker rolling back the years persuading him to deal almost exclusively in elaborate backheels for a brief spell. Both players were really enjoying themselves and spotting any footballer doing that in a United shirt lately had become pretty difficult.
Mata was another man probably saying goodbye, making his first start of a league season after which he is out of contract. In some respects, he and Ronaldo are two ends of a story Ten Hag must bring to an end.
Ronaldo was the signing who was going to return United to the promised land, turning them from top-four hopefuls into potential champions once again. He ticked on to 18 Premier League goals on Monday night, but they’re probably going to finish sixth.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) May 2, 2022
When Mata joined back in January 2014, United were struggling under David Moyes. Signed from Chelsea and presented at the training ground after arriving in a helicopter, he was the first attempt at a big-name transfer market reset of the post Alex Ferguson era.
Things were going badly, but Mata would link with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie and it’d be Best, Law and Charlton all over again. Only it wasn’t.
The ever-popular Mata played well enough and won the hearts of fans through his affable nature and philanthropy. But there was a nagging feeling over what might have been on Monday when he dazzled as a number 10 – playing in the position in which he always excelled but has rarely had the chance to feature at United.
Mata’s standing ovation in the 74th-minute was one of the factors that kiboshed the planned 73rd-minute walkout from fans to protest over the Glazer family’s ownership. Raphael Varane also completed the scoring in the 72nd minute with his first United goal. Everyone was confused, didn’t stick to the plan and just did what they wanted – a fanbase looking more in step with their club than they might have liked.
When is Paul Pogba out of contract at Manchester United?
Varane began this season being presented on the pitch before Solskjaer’s Reds demolished Leeds United 5-1. He was another of those big, simple transfer market answers that would answer loads of troublesome questions. Paul Pogba was also one of those a few years early and was sensational with four assists against Leeds. Like Mata, he is out of contract in June and has probably also played his final game for United at Old Trafford.
Romelu Lukaku, Angel Di Maria and Jadon Sancho were other big-answer signings, while the appointments of Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho also smacked of searching for a new messiah. If Ten Hag is to have any chance of succeeding, he cannot be viewed in those terms and no signing he makes can be welcomed as the latest miracle man.
Manchester United are a club built on towering personalities but the desire to unearth the next big character has only served to highlight a footballing operation without any guiding idea. Ten Hag has that and his time at Ajax shows he is an expert at building high-quality football teams that make sense.
Can Ronaldo be a part of that? On Monday’s evidence, as he roved in from either wing and linked play impressively, of course he can. His signing was, in some respects, ill-conceived. But United are not the team they were at the end of last season.
Perhaps Ronaldo was partly responsible for them becoming a rabble but his levels have not dropped and he has done more than most to try and drag them out of the mire. His flashes of genius are to be cherished as great moments, not worked into wider strategy. The past decade shows he, Ten Hag or anyone else cannot do it alone.
Mata is one of several very good players over recent years to have reached the end of their United journey surrounded by a sense of unfulfillment. The club owe it to all those who come after him under Ten Hag to stop waiting on magic and miracles.