When the current English Premier League season began, Manchester United’s plan for it didn’t include Cristiano Ronaldo. The club legend was still under contract to Juventus, and although there had been whispers that he might want to leave Italy, there was nothing substantial to the rumours by the time the first ball of the season was kicked. United’s key summer acquisitions were Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane, and most people thought they were good ones. Varane would give United the touch of class in defence that they’d been missing. Sancho would add even more potency to the forward line and serve as a permanent replacement for the consistently disappointing Anthony Martial. That, at least, was the idea.
In the final week of August, everything changed very quickly. Juventus confirmed that Ronaldo wanted to leave and leave now. Suddenly – impossibly, in the minds of every Manchester United fan – the Red Devils legend was linked with Manchester City. United’s biggest rivals are understood to have made a bid, which was accepted, and talks began between City and Ronaldo’s advisers. United felt compelled to act, and so they did. Sir Alex Ferguson even personally intervened, making contact with Ronaldo and persuading him to “come home” to Old Trafford. Ronaldo listened to the man he’s always regarded as a second father and returned to the red side of the city. After not winning a league title since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, United fans began to dream of glory again.
Some sections of the press suggested that bringing back Cristiano Ronaldo on an enormous salary at the age of 36 might be a gamble. It had been years since he’d played in the physically demanding Premier League, compared to which the Italian league is a walk in the park. Ronaldo, though, is a man who isn’t afraid of gambling. His likeness even appears on an online slots game called “Striker Goes Wild.” The first law of online slots also applies to this transfer, though – the website always wins. No matter how much any individual player might win from any individual online slots game, it won’t be as much as the slots website makes that day. In ticket sales, merchandising and, as it’s turning out, value on the pitch, Ronaldo is still more than worth whatever United are paying them. The question is whether that will be enough to drag United back to the promised land – and the jury is still out on that matter.
It’s early in the season to be making bold predictions, but it’s already beginning to look like championship glory isn’t as easy as spending money and bringing back an all-time great. Ronaldo hasn’t lost a step. He’s scoring goals and making chances, and he’s improved United’s potency no end. He’s also turning draws and defeats into victories. No single game has demonstrated that better than his team’s recent last-gasp win against Villarreal, in which Ronaldo struck the decisive goal deep into injury time. He did the same on his second debut for the club in the Premier League against Newcastle, scoring twice to secure victory just when it had started to look like a draw might be on the cards. When United went 1-0 down away at West Ham, it was Ronaldo who scored the equaliser before Jesse Lingard netted an 89th-minute winner. In decisive moments he’s already become the difference for Manchester United. Fans hate to think where they might be in the table if he weren’t there.
The problem is that Ronaldo, for all of his powers, isn’t enough. Ronaldo couldn’t rescue the team from an embarrassing 2-1 loss away at Young Boys in the Champions League. Nor could he do anything about a 1-0 loss at home to Aston Villa. The inconsistencies that haunted United at crucial times last season are all there, and many of them can probably still be laid at the feet of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. This isn’t Ronaldo’s fault, but his arrival might even have put Jadon Sancho’s nose out of joint. In contrast to the Portuguese, Sancho has struggled to make an impact thus far in his United career. He looks unfit, lacks sharpness, and has spent too much time on the bench for a man who cost upwards of seventy million pounds. Sancho would have been the star man on the wings if Ronaldo hadn’t arrived. That role is undoubtedly now Ronaldo’s, and it’s harder to see where Sancho fits in the jigsaw.
As sharp as the forward line is, there are still question marks elsewhere on the pitch for United and Solskjaer. The club’s decision not to sign a new defensive midfielder in the summer looks all the more unwise given the struggles of Fred and Scott McTominay in their roles. Nemanja Matic can no longer be relied upon in that department either, and Juan Mata struggles even to find a space on the bench. It also looks like David de Gea has won his position back in goal, relegating Dean Henderson back to the bench and leaving the England international facing an uncertain future. The formidable defensive partnership that Varane and Harry Maguire were supposed to form is yet to gel, and United concede goals that they shouldn’t concede. If you compare their consistency and form with Liverpool or Chelsea, they’re a pace behind. Say it quietly, but they might still be a step behind Manchester City, too.
Manchester United are obviously better with Cristiano Ronaldo than without him, but Ronaldo alone can’t lead them back to the summit of English football. He needs more support from the players around him, and he needs clearer direction from his manager. A squad as good as Manchester United’s should be challenging for top honours even with the weakness in the defensive midfield position, but it looks more likely that they’ll spend the season close to the top than at the summit. Given the club’s spending and the raised expectations of the fans, that’s no longer good enough. Ronaldo can drag his team into the hunt for trophies, but it will take something more to win them. Unfortunately for Solskjaer, finding more might mean replacing him in the dugout.