Man United are still a work in progress
For Cristiano Ronaldo, this isn’t how the summer was supposed to go. Once he had decided, albeit belatedly, that he wanted to leave Manchester United, the Portuguese megastar and his agent Jorge Mendes were doubtless expecting to be inundated with offers from clubs across the world, all gleefully-willing to entertain the 37-year-old’s whims for a year or two.
Instead, Ronaldo has endured eight weeks that ought to humble even his ego. Mendes has spent the last couple of months trying to drum up interest in his fattest cash cow but, depending on which report you believe, the only viable offer was received not from the Champions League but Saudi Pro League.
As the time has passed, it became increasingly apparent that a parting would suit United too. Ronaldo’s continued absence through pre-season and their first tour under Erik ten Hag became a distraction and his eventual return an unnecessary sideshow. Now, though, both United and Ronaldo find themselves stuck in a marriage of inconvenience. And both parties have little choice but to make the best of it.
From United’s perspective, there is no money left in the kitty. That’s what The Telegraph claims after the Red Devils were forced to empty their pot to sign Antony from Ajax. If no money is available to further strengthen United’s squad, it still leaves Ten Hag three players short at the end of his first fraught window in charge.
Even if there were a few pennies left, it is claimed a right-back and a midfielder are a greater priority for United. The club don’t appear willing to splurge on a right-back, with Diogo Dalot doing a passable job through the opening weeks of the season, even if no one is yet entirely convinced of his defensive reliability. Sergino Dest has been reported to be an option, though that comes down to convenience too. If United and Barca can swap Dest and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, then everyone is happy. Until one or both clubs realise why the other was so keen to swap.
Despite the arrival of Casemiro, Ten Hag still needs another midfielder if United are to be taken seriously. Given their previous steadfast commitment to not buying midfielders, however, United fans might just be grateful to see one come through the door. The Red Devils midfield appears a project destined never to be completed.
In attack too, Ten Hag is short. Antony’s arrival offers the manager a tantalising wide option – another to go with Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho. Who, though, does he expect to finish all the chances he hopes those fliers can create?
Anthony Martial wasn’t the answer before a failed loan spell at Sevilla but, somehow, now he is. When he can be trusted to stay fit, of course, which is apparently never.
The only back-up centre-forward Ten Hag has is Ronaldo. Who would doubtless baulk at having such a demeaning label pinned to him. But, unless a Champions League chairman sh*ts his bed before Thursday night, then one of the greatest to ever play the game has to accept his new reality.
There have been signs – some very orchestrated – that Ronaldo is willing to get on with the job. United’s No.7 hasn’t much sulked on the bench and has sprung from it enthusiastically when summoned by Ten Hag. Of course, the mask has slipped on occasion, though anyone would have struggled to keep a straight face while being humiliated by Brentford, not least a player with five Ballons d’Or.
If Ten Hag can’t buy a centre-forward, despite the obvious need for one, then the new manager needs Ronaldo to embrace this new and unfamiliar challenge of earning his place in the team. It doesn’t matter what his motivation is – though with Ronaldo, self almost certainly comes before side – even if it becomes about a shop window for January or next summer as a free agent, the 37-year-old has little choice but to knuckle down to avoid the dreaded career decline endured by the mere mortals around and against him.
At least he knows – whether he cares is a different matter – that United need him. With Martial seemingly as fragile as he ever was, Ronaldo will get plenty of minutes. And even if he starts from the bench, there will be many games this season when United’s wingers are dribbling up dead ends in need of the ruthlessness Ronaldo can provide.
For a player who strives for perfection, making do is an abhorrent prospect. But, so close to the deadline with no offers on the table, both Ronaldo and United are obliged to make the best of it.