No player is bigger than Manchester United and Erik ten Hag can stamp his authority on the squad by letting the unsettled Portuguese superstar leave the club for the second and final time
Erik ten Hag would be wise to spend a few days reading Alex Ferguson’s autobiography. One line in particular should scream out, as he considers what to do with Cristiano Ronaldo.
“The minute a Manchester United player thought he was bigger than the manager, he had to go.”
It would be surprising – and contradictory – if Ferguson has not already personally delivered this message to Ten Hag, having intervened in the ongoing dispute between the player and club.
Wherever the end of Ten Hag’s tether is, it appears Ronaldo may have finally located it, given the Dutchman’s most recent comments.
Every United supporter ought to have been encouraged by their new coach publicly criticising the early departure of Ronaldo and others during last weekend’s pre-season friendly against Rayo Vallecano. Before Ten Hag can get United performing again, he needs to crack the whip.
“Unacceptable” is putting it mildly about Ronaldo’s petulant behaviour. Ten Hag should go further and tell his board to facilitate Ronaldo’s departure on a free transfer for the greater good of Manchester United. This will not be a sign of weakness even if, ultimately, it is what Ronaldo wants.
By seizing the moment, Ten Hag can make it known it is he who wants Ronaldo out, sending a message to the rest of the team that he will not tolerate such lack of discipline. Keeping Ronaldo will prolong the problem and what has become an unwanted soap opera.
Since his return, Ronaldo has been treated and acted as if he is more important than the coach, and even bigger than Manchester United. It is damaging and undermining, casting a shadow over the early months of Ten Hag’s reign. Here we are heading into a new season and still all roads lead to Ronaldo. The obsession with Ronaldo and his future is eclipsing any positive momentum that usually follows a managerial appointment.
None of this is Ten Hag’s doing, of course. He has been handed an extremely difficult and unwanted welcoming gift upon arriving from Ajax. Ronaldo’s presence is a legacy of United’s miscalculation in bringing him back 12 months ago.
I made my reservations known at the time. Everything since has confirmed the mistake.
When the first mutterings of Ronaldo wishing to leave this summer were made, it felt like an open goal for Ten Hag to show him the door and terminate his contract.
United’s current stance – unwilling to engineer his exit – surprises me because while there is no doubt Ronaldo can still produce extraordinary moments on a football pitch, it has been obvious for a while that his individual talent no longer blends into a team ethic and culture.
My suspicion is that if Ten Hag held a private poll within his squad, the majority of United players would not mind if he left. His presence is suffocating them. You can question their mentality for allowing that to happen, but it is not helpful seeing him throw his arms around after every misplaced pass. I believe the supporters have had enough, too.
They will always love what he did for the club but can see that his presence is now doing more harm than good. United need to move on, create a new culture on and off the pitch in which it is visibly obvious that everyone is pulling together. Everything Ronaldo has done in pre-season has been calculated to serve his needs above the new coach.
Aside from the transfer request and swift departure from the pre-season game, look at his social media post claiming ‘the king is back’ before his return, timed to maximise media coverage for his situation and embarrass the club.
And did he really have to post on Instagram immediately after United’s pre-season defeat to Atletico Madrid? The statement ‘working in progress’ felt choreographed.
Ronaldo is a phenomenon, but there is one unbeatable opponent in football. Time beats us all.
He strikes me as a footballer who is refusing to accept the reality that, no matter how good you are and have been, powers dwindle with age. In his mind he is still the best, capable of winning the Champions League.
The fact that no elite teams want him should provide a reality check. Yes, Ronaldo can still score goals at the highest level – as he did at United last season – but a wise manager leading one of the top teams would see him as contributing as part of a squad and therefore too expensive.
They also know he is not prepared to play second fiddle, sulking when subbed or left out of the starting XI. The baggage is unattractive. Even his superagent, Jorge Mendes, must be realising the options are not what they were.
All this gives Ten Hag a headache which will grow in severity unless Ronaldo goes. But it also presents the United manager with an opportunity.
History is full of examples of managers going into the biggest clubs and making a statement with a major decision on a high-profile player.
Although the elite coaches are generally judged on their signings, it is often those they let go which set the tone for the era.
Look at Pep Guardiola at Barcelona and Manchester City. Upon taking over at the Nou Camp, ditching legends like Ronaldinho and Deco were among Guardiola’s first acts.
At City, Pep stamped his authority by deciding Joe Hart was not part of his plans. Okay, that is different to taking on a player of Ronaldo’s stature. It still sent a message to the rest of the squad, given Hart was England’s then number one and two-time Premier League winner.
We should not forget how contentious it was at the time, many disagreeing with the decision and criticising Guardiola. They were silenced later.
Jurgen Klopp joined Liverpool a matter of weeks after Christian Benteke was the club’s joint record signing. From day one he made it obvious he wasn’t for him. It was a bigger call at the time than it looks now.
Antonio Conte went into Chelsea and decided Cesc Fabregas did not fit his vision for the team, benching him and subsequently being involved in a couple of media spats with the player.
And I have often recalled the moment Gerard Houllier criticised Paul Ince’s performance in a team meeting following an FA Cup tie at Manchester United, shortly after he became sole manager. Ince was the Liverpool and England captain at the time and still a top player.
The younger players like myself felt ‘we have a real manager here’. Houllier later made the decision to sell him because he wanted a different vibe in the dressing-room. It could have backfired horribly, given how much squad rebuilding was necessary.
The short-term pain of losing a high class, influential player was counterbalanced by the manager stamping his authority on the club. Players know if those with the highest status are considered disposable, everyone has to get in line.
The key difference here is Ronaldo wants out. United might feel they are letting him win by accepting his transfer demand.
They are wrong. The best way for Ten Hag to look to the future is to rid himself of the superstar who is clinging on to the glories of his past.
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