Why Always Me? Manchester United's Season Will Be All About Cristiano Ronaldo

Whether he stays or leaves, 'CR7' will define Ten Hag's first season in charge
14:55, 01 Aug 2022

“Sunday, the king plays”

Three simple words from Cristiano Ronaldo on Instagram provided the first hint that he would appear once again in Manchester United colours. It was a bold statement, considering Old Trafford is already well-stocked with kings. With all due respect to ‘CR7’, old monarchs Denis Law and Eric Cantona are far more loved in M16 than the pouting Portuguese. But Ronaldo is no stranger to bold statements. 

He inadvertently made one in the wake of his side’s 1-1 friendly draw with Rayo Vallecano on Sunday afternoon. The 37-year-old was substituted at half time and pictures spread like wildfire across social media of him appearing to leave the ground early. This was interpreted as another bold statement. This was the king abdicating his throne, sending the clearest message yet that his time in this particular kingdom is up.


Except, it wasn’t that at all. Ronaldo had been given permission to leave the ground early. The same leeway was afforded to Anthony Martial, Diogo Dalot, David De Gea and Bruno Fernandes among others. The reasons were logistical, with the players being allowed to beat the crowds and traffic to return home. What was a simple organisational decision from Erik ten Hag and his staff was instead cast as the latest episode in the long-running soap opera that is Ronaldo’s future.

This is the conundrum United face this season. Ronaldo will attract headlines and speculation no matter what. Sometimes, he feeds into it. The “king” comments were designed to do that, as was his rant against the press on Instagram a few days before. But the five-time Ballon d’Or winner will also attract attention in ways even he can’t predict. 

A fairly standard exchange with Ten Hag over tactics has already been turned into a viral social media clip supposedly showing unrest between manager and player. The spirited but tame body language contorted into the aggressive peacocking of a full-blown argument by fans, media and amateur sleuths alike.

Ralf Rangnick had to answer endless questions about 'CR7'
Ralf Rangnick had to answer endless questions about 'CR7'

One need only look as far as the furore that sparked when then-interim manager Ralf Rangnick substituted Ronaldo in a 3-1 win over Brentford last January to see what’s ahead if the striker stays. Despite the victory, Rangnick’s relationship was under the microscope owing to the sheer fact he made a tactical switch. The German did this without the backdrop of Ronaldo openly trying to engineer a move away from the club.

Imagine Ten Hag prefers Anthony Martial to Ronaldo for a game? Or the Dutchman substitutes his veteran star after a goalless hour to give United something different up top? God forbid the new manager dares ever not play Ronaldo at all for 90 minutes. These choices would be criticised enough simply because of who Ronaldo is. But with the player so set on an exit, these rather petty instances will be blown up into epic tales of good vs evil to rival the MCU.

This is a state of affairs Ten Hag doesn’t need at this embryonic stage of his time in charge. There will be enough criticism doled out every time his nascent team under-perform. Despite the widespread acknowledgement that the former Ajax manager needs time and patience, United are under the microscope. Any defeats will be mined heavily for evidence Ten Hag is not up to the task. That he’s another name for the towering scrapheap the Red Devils have amassed post-Ferguson. 

The issue Ronaldo presents is he could dominate the zeitgeist even if United are winning and playing well. If United beat Brighton & Hove Albion on Sunday with Ronaldo glowering in the stands, or petulantly storming down the tunnel again when substituted, what do you think people will talk about? Ten Hag’s side getting the victory they’re heavily-favoured to secure or the latest dummy-chuck from their wantaway superstar? For now, this is Cristiano Ronaldo’s world. Erik ten Hag must swiftly find a way to live in it.

ronaldo is 14/1 to be epl 22-23 top scorer via betfred*

*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change

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