There was no “last call” for Cristiano Ronaldo on Friday afternoon. Manchester United’s 12-hour flight to Bangkok departed without their talisman on board as Erik ten Hag and his players set off to Thailand for the first leg of their pre-season tour.
Even by United’s recent standards, it has been a chaotic and turbulent week. Ronaldo’s future has overshadowed everything since the news broke last Saturday that he had told United he wanted to leave if they received a suitable offer for him. “Shocking” was how one source close to United described the timing.
Forty-eight hours later, Ten Hag was due to address the full United playing squad for the first time since taking over as manager. It says everything about the current situation, and in particular about who is in control, that nobody at United was able to say on Sunday with any certainty whether Ronaldo would be present for that meeting.
The clues were there on social media late on Monday morning, when United posted a video on Instagram showing seven players who were reporting back to Carrington for the first time since the end of last season, after they had been given an extended break because of international fixtures.
Anthony Elanga, Bruno Fernandes, Harry Maguire, Alex Telles, Fred, Diogo Dalot and Raphael Varane fist-bumped their way down the corridor at United’s training ground. As for Ronaldo, he was nowhere to be seen, other than in the comments section. “Where is CR7?”
United had discovered the answer to that question a couple of hours earlier. He was still in Portugal and would not be returning for his first day of pre-season training. Ronaldo cited family reasons – something The Athletic was told that Ten Hag referenced, matter-of-factly, during his opening speech with the United players, when the Dutchman knew that he couldn’t ignore the elephant in the room.
The players kept their thoughts to themselves in that setting. Privately, though, they were soon talking and coming to a rather different conclusion about Ronaldo’s absence. Last season’s top scorer wants out and, in reality, was unlikely to be seen again anytime soon.
In the wake of Monday’s no-show, the mood inside the club shifted quickly. The idea that Ronaldo would not fly with the rest of the United players for the club’s pre-season tour had been almost unthinkable on Sunday. Twenty-four hours later, it seemed quite plausible. United, quite simply, had no idea when Ronaldo would return.
Footage emerged on Monday afternoon suggesting that Ronaldo was at the Portugal national team’s training headquarters, in Lisbon, where his Rolls-Royce was spotted in the car park. There were reports in Spain later in the day that Jorge Mendes, Ronaldo’s agent, had flown to Barcelona to meet with the club’s president Joan Laporta to discuss the United forward.
Mendes has clearly been doing the rounds lately – and for good reason. A week before Ronaldo told United that he wanted to be allowed to leave the club, The Athletic reported that Mendes had met with Todd Boehly, Chelsea’s new owner. The prospect of Ronaldo switching to Chelsea was part of their conversation.
United may well have misread the significance of that rendezvous with Boehly in Portugal, partly because there was a sense at the time that it just felt like Mendes was being Mendes, but also because Ronaldo had previously given the club no reason to think that he would be doing anything other than staying.
During an in-house interview at the start of June, Ronaldo claimed to be “very happy” at Old Trafford and “excited” that Ten Hag had been appointed as the new manager, and even talked about believing next year we are going to win trophies ”. Four weeks later, he wanted out.
The question that many were asking, both inside and outside the club, is what happened to change Ronaldo’s mind, bearing in mind that he had known for two months that Old Trafford was not going to be hosting Champions League football next season.
Ten Hag was entitled to be as confused as anyone, given that he had spoken to Ronaldo earlier in the summer and there had been no hint of what was to come. It is understood that Ten Hag learned about Ronaldo’s desire to leave via another party, rather than directly. Irrespective of that news, Ten Hag still anticipated that Ronaldo would return for pre-season training on Monday.
If Ronaldo is frustrated by United’s lack of transfer activity this summer, he is not alone. There is a mixture of exasperation and despair behind the scenes at United at the way the club operates in the market. There is talk of United “playing the long game” on deals when there is no need to do so – they risk missing out on targets in the process and relying on a reactive approach to recruitment. United would counter that negotiations take time when clubs raise prices.
What is clear is that the Ronaldo news caught United off guard. Calls were made this week to sound out potential replacements for a player who scored 24 goals in all competitions last season. All the while, United continued to publicly insist that Ronaldo was not for sale. Privately, many doubt that is the case. Keeping an unhappy player is one thing, keeping an unhappy Ronaldo quite another – especially when Ten Hag is trying to kick-start a new era.
“The only important factor with the Ronaldo situation is that it’s dealt with decisively and quickly,” Gary Neville, the former United defender, tweeted on Monday evening. “This can’t be a saga that takes the attention away from Erik ten Hag’s bedding-in period for the next two months.”
Concern deepened inside the club once it became clear that Ronaldo was highly unlikely to be flying out to Thailand this week. Ronaldo’s profile is a game-changer when things are going well and the club can ride on the back of it, but it can quickly turn into a circus when he is the center of the story for the wrong reasons. Good luck steering the narrative away from CR7 now.
By Tuesday, anyone and everyone was wading into the issue, and quoting lines from Top Gun in the process. “Cristiano Ronaldo wants out of United because they don’t share his ferocious ambition and will to win,” Piers Morgan tweeted. “Especially some of the cocky, lazy younger players whose egos, unlike his, are writing checks their performances don’t cash. That’s the real story. ”
Morgan, for what it’s worth, has a line to Ronaldo. Whether he has talked to him about his United future is another matter, but what we can say for sure is that the extent to which Ronaldo’s relationship with the younger players at the club has unraveled is a relevant subject.
Last weekend, The Athletic was told by well-placed sources that some United players would feel “liberated” and more confident about expressing themselves without Ronaldo at the club, almost as if his presence was suffocating.
A senior figure with inside knowledge of the way that United operate quickly came to a similar conclusion this week – namely, that there was now an opportunity for the team to develop without Ronaldo (with emphasis on the word “team”) and that all of this is a blessing in disguise for Ten Hag.
This is not a black and white issue, though, and in the eyes of some, it is far too simplistic to believe that United’s problems will be solved by Ronaldo leaving the building, especially when you begin to understand just how exasperated other senior players were. last season with the dysfunctional nature of the club as a whole.
Culture is a word that comes up again and again in conversations about United, and it is hard for anyone to see how that can be a quick fix. “There are so many things to change in there that players didn’t see a short-term solution,” says one source.
Interestingly – and this is where the debate about Ronaldo and his impact on others becomes more complicated – the same source questions “the culture among some of the young players, in terms of effort and intensity in training”, and goes on to talk more broadly about a lack of professionalism outside of a core group.
The subject of leadership has come up repeatedly at United in recent years and Ten Hag will have been well briefed on what to expect at the club. It is understood that he tried to encourage Nemanja Matic, who triggered an exit clause in his contract this summer, to stay on for another year because the Serbian was viewed as a good influence in the dressing room.
As for Ronaldo, he was still missing from training on Wednesday morning, when a slip of the thumb by Maguire caused some amusement. Maguire “liked” a post on Instagram about Ronaldo being “reportedly upset with the 25 per cent wage cut all players received when Manchester United failed to qualify for next season’s Champions League”.
The question of whether Maguire was empathizing with Ronaldo, or enjoying some fun at his team-mate’s expense (mindful that the Instagram post said his salary would be cut to £ 360,000 a week), became redundant when it emerged that the England defender had accidentally hit the wrong button.
Bayern Munich feared that they would do the same if they signed Ronaldo this summer. The Athletic reported on Monday that Bayern had briefly discussed Ronaldo and realized just as quickly that a deal for him made little sense.
Official confirmation of Bayern’s position arrived on Wednesday. “As highly as I rate Cristiano Ronaldo as one of the greatest, a transfer wouldn’t be a fit with our philosophy,” Oliver Kahn, Bayern’s chief executive officer, told Kicker magazine.
Back at Old Trafford, United’s signing of Tyrell Malacia from Feyenoord on Tuesday afternoon had almost gone under the radar. The same cannot be said for Ronaldo’s private jet, which was picked up en route from Lisbon to Madrid on Wednesday. Ronaldo did not appear to be on board – a feeling that United know all too well.
Some short-term clarity was around the corner. On Thursday evening, United confirmed that Ronaldo had been granted additional time off to deal with a family issue and would not be flying to Bangkok on Friday. Whether he joins up with the United squad for the Australia leg of the pre-season tour is unclear.
United continued to reiterate on Thursday that Ronaldo, who is under contract for another 12 months, is not for sale – a public stance that will be tested if and when the club receives an offer for him. In truth, there are good reasons to believe that United will be willing to do business. A bigger question right now is where that bid might come from.
On the face of it, Chelsea or Napoli remain Ronaldo’s most likely suitors, but there are complications with both clubs. Does Thomas Tuchel really want to manage Ronaldo at Chelsea? Can Napoli, who are trying to cut costs, actually afford Ronaldo?
Perhaps the 37-year-old will end up staying at Old Trafford and wearing a United shirt again. He was pictured with one on first thing on Friday morning, when United launched their new kit for the 2022-23 season. Those photos were taken five weeks ago, though, and a lot has changed since then – in particular during the last seven days.
(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)