Sunday, August 14, 2022

Cristiano Ronaldo-Manchester United saga continues; examining the options for the wantaway Portuguese star

Cristiano Ronaldo is once more absent from preseason training, the third day in which he has not reported due to family issues. Manchester United had agreed to allow their star striker to delay his return to preseason training, but club sources have so far offered no indication when his absence might end.

United’s first-team squad are due to fly out on their preseason tour of Australia and Thailand on Friday. As one of the most high profile stars in the sport, and certainly the biggest name in Erik ten Hag’s squad, Ronaldo’s absence would be keenly 

In practical terms, nothing has changed since Ronaldo informed United last week that he would like to leave the club if an acceptable bid comes in for his services. The club stance remains the same: They do not well to sell their top scorer from last season. He is expected to see out the final year of his contract. Ten Hag and Ronaldo are yet to meet for talks that could potentially change that stance.

Meanwhile, the latter’s declaration that he wants out has not prompted a cavalcade of bids landing at the desk of football director John Murtough. Since Ronaldo first departed Old Trafford 14 years ago, he has seemed able to bend events to his will on and off the pitch. If he wanted a new contract, manager or teammate, it was only a matter of time before he got his way. Now there are many who appear to be asking whether the goals are worth the aggravation. 

Not that there are no suitors at all. Chelsea are observing matters and their new chairman and part-owner Todd Boehly — who is also serving as interim sporting director — spoke to Ronaldo’s agent Jorge Mendes last week. They are said to hold the most tangible interest in the 37-year-old’s service, though it is tempting to offer a penny for the thoughts of Thomas Tuchel.

The Chelsea manager has long favored forwards who can be the first line of defense — he articulated his philosophical approach after last season’s 4-0 win over Juventus (a match where his front three made as many successful pressures as Ronaldo did in February) in simple terms. “We attack together and defend together,” he said. He would not get much of the former from a player who, according to fbref, averaged one and a half fewer pressures per 90 minutes than any other Premier League forward last season.

If one wanted to make the case for Ronaldo at Stamford Bridge, Tuchel has at least offered some ammunition, saying late last season about Chelsea needing “overperformance if we want to be nearer to the top two teams. I am not pointing fingers, I am not blaming anybody, but we need overperformance from everybody.” Presuming that the German is referring to overperformance in terms of expected goals (xG), you could imagine why those involved in Stamford Bridge recruitment might be tempted to acquire one of the most prolific figures the sport has ever seen. 

They might also note that since 2018 when he joined Juventus, Ronaldo has averaged 0.61 non-penalty xG per 90 minutes of league play. He scored 0.6 non-penalty goals. That xG figure is 0.12 higher than Chelsea’s highest return last season — which came from the frequently clumsy boots of Timo Werner — though, of course, it came in two teams that were constructed almost entirely in service to Ronaldo’s scoring skills.

With both United and Juventus, Ronaldo would step into his central role and produce. The byproduct was fewer goals and fewer points, culminating in perennial Scudetto winners slipping to fourth and the Red Devils scrabbling just to make the Europa League. That is not to say that the perennial scorer would not bring value to any squad he is in, but the days where he ought to be among the surefire starters for a team’s biggest games are gone. You might not want to build your 11 in service to him, but Ronaldo could be a great option off the bench for Tuchel, so long as Boehly does not mind paying one of world football’s most exorbitant salaries for a 12th man.

Bayern Munich would likely reach the same conclusion, that Ronaldo would make for a fantastic reserve option behind Sadio Mane or Robert Lewandowski, one who could make an impact in the Champions League more through the curious narrative alchemy that imbues him rather than any tactical masterplan Julian Nagelsmann might construct. Napoli might not, but almost as soon as they were linked, there were indications that they would not pursue a chance to bring the Portuguese forward back to Serie A.

The most likely possibility would appear to be that when Ronaldo returns from his leave of personal absence, it will be to find himself tied to United for one more year. Certainly, that is what betting markets view as the most probable outcome for a 37-year-old earning half a million pounds a week.

He might want to find a way back to the Champions League. United’s internal view might even change with ten Hag coming to see that the compromises his players have to make for their No. 7 are not offset in weight of goals. But even if that happens, there is no certainty that Ronaldo can get what he wants. Three days into his limbo status, there may be many more yet to come.

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