Cristiano Ronaldo was named Premier League player of the month for April. He’d scored five goals in four games, including a hat-trick.
But during that month, Manchester United won just one match out of six, scrabbling to a 3-2 victory at home to bottom club Norwich thanks to Ronaldo’s treble. They were outclassed at Liverpool and beaten comfortably at Arsenal in their next two games.
Ronaldo was also named in the Premier League team of the year. Tottenham’s Heung-min Son, who didn’t make the cut, may have scored five more goals but Ronaldo’s 18 strikes won 14 points for his team, more than any other player. His total goals across all competitions was 24, more than double his next-best team-mate Bruno Fernandes who scored 10.
United ended the season with back-to-back defeats to Brighton and Crystal Palace. Sixth and trophyless. It was their worst league performance in 32 years.
While his team floundered, Ronaldo – at 37, we shouldn’t forget – still found a way to make his mark.
Often those moments came when United were on their knees.
The decisive late goals in the Champions League against Villarreal and Atalanta (twice) when his team flirted with a group stage exit. A man-of-the-match performance at Tottenham after a 5-0 drubbing at home to Liverpool. A hat-trick against Spurs on the back of a 4-1 thrashing at Man City. A 100th Premier League goal in a 3-1 defeat at the Emirates when United missed a penalty Ronaldo passed up.
The individual and the collective. That’s the Ronaldo dilemma. Do the two sit separately or are they directly related? His request for a United exit to chase his Champions League dream underlines the situation.
His critics will say that United’s slump from second in 2020/21 was caused by the disruption of Ronaldo’s return. That the hysteria and record shirt sales in the wake of his signing only proved to be a celebration of a spanner being slammed into the works.
United’s pacey attack blunted. Their young stars shifted to the fringes. A formula for success which had emerged under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer muddled by the need to accommodate a player who can’t press in a way which the modern game demands.
And aside from the technical limitations, a player whose dramatic demonstrations of frustration set a negative tone.
But on the other side of the coin, Ronaldo delivered what he said he would: goals. For the 16th season in a row he was his club’s top scorer.
His style of play was no secret last summer. Is it not then the job of a manager to maximise those talents for the greater good of the team? Can it be that hard to find a way of playing with one of the greatest players of all time?
Ronaldo didn’t return to United to lose at Young Boys or be embarrassed by rival Premier League sides. And to suggest he was the sole reason for a disastrous season is beyond a stretch. This is a United side with many issues to resolve as interim boss Ralf Rangnick found out. At the back, it could have been a lot worse had David de Gea not found fine form behind a shambolic defence.
They scored more goals and earned more points with Ronaldo in the team. They won just two of the eight games he missed in the Premier League.
Over in Italy, Juventus’ fourth place and trophyless 2021/22 suggests their own problems go further than ‘playing worse with Ronaldo in the team’. That was the line when back-to-back title wins were followed by fourth place and an Italian Cup triumph in Ronaldo’s third and final campaign there.
Juve averaged 74 goals per season in Serie A during Ronaldo’s stay. Twelve down on the season before he arrived but 17 more than they managed last term without him.
Who’s at fault? The individual or the collective? Of course, like all of these things, it’s a combination of both. The argument is how much each side is to blame.
United and Juventus are paying the price for years of poor recruitment, shifting manager styles and failing to capitalise on the advantages their history affords them. Their play and plans were altered to accommodate Ronaldo but while in moments it paid off, certainly in the case of United, the significant outlay didn’t deliver the required returns.
There will be frustration that the thrill of his two-goal comeback performance against Newcastle at Old Trafford in September didn’t prove to be the catalyst for United to kick on and recapture their former glories. Goals, glamour and global media attention didn’t translate to silverware.
Is he to blame? That’s the Ronaldo dilemma.
Perhaps the seasons to come under Erik ten Hag will help us better quantify Ronaldo’s role in United’s year to forget.
But he leaves United with his legendary status still in tact and in pursuit of more honours to enhance his legacy. United’s own pursuit of success will have to go on without him.
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