The unforgiving maelstrom of the transfer window giveth and it taketh away. Manchester United fans are left facing the unsettling dichotomy of losing their foremost attacking talent and acquiring a star midfielder adept at servicing a striker’s needs. Two days after the shock revelation that Cristiano Ronaldo is seeking a move away from Old Trafford, reports suggest Christian Eriksen has verbally agreed a three-year deal to join United. While the two situations are not directly linked, these two ships passing in the night point to a new era for the Red Devils.
Newness is the theme at Carrington this summer. While the training ground remains under-improved, a symptom of the lackadaisical Glazer tenure, those occupying it are fairly fresh faces. John Murtough is finally getting his feet under the table and taking a more active role as Football Director. CEO Richard Arnold is working hard to distance his regime from that of predecessor Ed Woodward. Meanwhile, the most front-facing change is the man taking training. Erik ten Hag is the latest manager tasked with wafting smelling salts beneath the nose of the sleeping goliath.
This leadership structure has been handed an almighty curveball at a stage where it is still finding its feet. Ronaldo seeking a move was not quite a PR disaster, but was certainly something the hierarchy would rather have dealt with internally. The merits and drawbacks of Ronaldo the player have been covered on these pages before. In short, he scores lots of goals and does very little else. He is 37 and yet United have no other forwards who can replicate his scoring contributions. ‘CR7’ is pathologically individualistic and if you don’t build the team around him he will build it around himself.
This was not necessarily an immediate problem for Ten Hag. Ronaldo has a year left on his contract and having a goal-happy North Star to draw the focus while the former Ajax manager builds his United of the future could have worked quite well. The situation has been complicated by the five-time Ballon d’Or winner agitating to leave. However, this unexpected wrinkle in Ten Hag’s best-laid plans could be a blessing in disguise.
Ten Hag’s teams are set up to press from the front. Like gegenpress-advocate Ralf Rangnick before him, the Dutchman was set to try and find a place for an aging number nine is his energetic formula. If United allowed Ronaldo to leave as he wishes, a difficult and newsworthy problem is off Ten Hag’s plate. Rangnick soon realised dropping Ronaldo would make international headlines, and often played the Portuguese superstar against his better judgement. United acquiescing to Ronaldo’s demands might actually serve their new manager.
Christian Eriksen is far closer to the sort of big name player Ten Hag wants to work with. While only Lionel Messi can claim to share airspace with Ronaldo in the prestige stakes, Eriksen is a top drawer talent and a huge get for this young regime. The former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder is a selfless creator, an elegant passer of the ball who diligently works to improve those around him. At 30 he brings experience, but has a few years of his prime remaining. Ten Hag will not need to make concessions for the player, he can slot Eriksen in and reap the rewards.
That is why this potential crossing of paths could point the way to the future. Eriksen has chosen to come to Old Trafford while fielding offers from a number of Premier League suitors. Ronaldo meanwhile has decided to leave. Arnold, Murtough and Ten Hag should take his moment to make a statement to the dressing room. While United’s public position that the player is not for sale is understandable, after all his value must be protected to some degree, privately they would do well to end this matter quickly.
If a player of the magnitude of Ronaldo is swiftly shown the door it will indicate to the rest of the players that Ten Hag needs complete buy-in from his team. United have been caught off-guard, but they can turn this situation from one Ronaldo is in charge of into one where they essentially make an example out of their superstar number seven.
If Ronaldo does go, don’t expect United to go back in for glitzy, ready-made superstars. The holistic, manager-led approach that has seen the Red Devils land Eriksen and Tyrell Malacia, while pursuing Lisandro Martinez and Frenkie de Jong, seems like the way forward. United have lacked a long-term plan for a while. Now the plan seems to be clear: selflessness before superstardom.
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