Cristiano Ronaldo’s latest walkout on Manchester United marked two significant ends. The final curtain on supporters’ unconditional love for a pouting superstar who as an unused replacement could not stomach sticking around to celebrate a scintillating win over Tottenham. It is also the death knell of this 37-year-old being a relevance – to Erik ten Hag and the United side he seeks to build – as underlined by the manager dropping him from the squad for Saturday’s game at Chelsea.
The two are connected. Fans witnessed the finest display of their team in recent memory and saw a man who draws about £500,000 a week sulk because Scott McTominay, Christian Eriksen and Anthony Elanga were preferred when Ten Hag made changes. They watched a footballer who enjoys unadulterated hero status due to his brilliance hurl it back in their faces by acting as if he can and should overshadow their club.
More material is how performing a second stomp-out in less than three months underlines Ronaldo’s waning power. In July, at half- time during a friendly against Rayo Vallecano, Ten Hag had the temerity to replace a player who was not close to match fit after missing most of pre-season (because of a family issue). Ronaldo’s reaction was to depart Old Trafford before the final whistle in a first challenge to the new manager’s authority. This, too, was a squad member who at the start of the summer had sent out smoke signals that he wished to leave.
Cut to Sunday and United’s show of class in honouring Ronaldo’s remarkable feat of 700 club goals with an on-pitch presentation from Sir Alex Ferguson, which was followed with a disgruntlement (by now hardly news) at being taken off during the goalless draw with Newcastle.
Three days later, Ten Hag restored Marcus Rashford to the starting XI at Ronaldo’s expense. The 52-year-old, whose management blends people skills, intelligence, tactical acumen and a hard edge, was pithy in explaining why. Ronaldo’s legs were simply not up to the “good press” needed to combat the visitors.
Cue Tottenham being smothered expertly as the tactical ploy worked a dream, with Fred and Bruno Fernandes goals handing United a handsome triumph. All without Ronaldo, whose eschewing by Ten Hag even as a substitute showed his retreat into further insignificance, having previously been a replacement only in the wins against Liverpool (2-1) and Arsenal (3-1). An equally damning Ten Hag verdict on Ronaldo’s import was found in the manager ignoring him when the team took a serious beating at Manchester City (6-3). Instead, Rashford and Jadon Sancho started while Anthony Martial was the cavalry Ten Hag sent for.
It is hardly Ronaldo’s fault he is in the winter of a sparkling career. But what he could do is accept this while continuing to fight – in the correct way – for a starting berth. The next episode in the Ronaldo soap opera will be intriguing, though observing Ten Hag suggests the manager will play a shrewd hand. He may also have fined Ronaldo for Wednesday’s strop and there is the material question of how the teammates he deserted view this moody superstar.
Cristiano Ronaldo walks through the tunnel to leave before the end of the game against Tottenham at Old Trafford. Photograph: Matt West/Shutterstock
Respect may be evaporating – not for the talent, hard work, serial silverware, personal honours and the 817 career goals – but for a character who continues to suggest being the antithesis of the all-for-one spirit Ten Hag knows is vital to achieve success.
The manager will be conscious Ronaldo can still be a potent weapon – predominantly from the bench – so expect him to offer calm dispatches at Friday’s media briefing when being quizzed on the affair, the player’s worth and his future. Any and all answers will be parsed for subtext because an inescapable truth is that the ideal scenario – for Ten Hag, his group and Ronaldo – would be for the player to leave as soon as possible, which is in the January window.
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Few clubs are able to afford a player with Ronaldo’s salary, which was the prevailing reason why he did not depart in the summer. But if this same issue seems to remain regarding the winter market, it feels increasingly irrelevant as the side evolves. In exiting on Wednesday Ronaldo bolstered Ten Hag’s assessment that he is peripheral to United – there to be deployed when and if required but in no way a shoo-in for the XI on the grounds of former glories and a glittering CV.
As a metaphor, too, for his second coming at United (after the 2003 to 2009 spell) Ronaldo striding off is apt: it points to the sense of him as a cipher, a garlanded perfectionist who, despite being one of the greats, remains unknowable, whose profile beyond the pitch is via image-conscious, choreographed social media posts, with the true persona fiercely guarded.
Perhaps he will take this opportunity to change a little with soul-searching that could lead to an apology issued for Wednesday evening and the revealing of the man behind the mask. Perhaps, though, he will not.