Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United in June 2009 to join his boyhood team, Real Madrid, in an £80M move that made him the world’s most valuable footballer. Almost four years on, and rumours abound that Ronaldo wishes to return to his old stomping grounds, a desire which Sir Alex Ferguson is reportedly ready and willing to fulfil by bringing his former prodigy back to Old Trafford. With two years left on his current contract at Madrid, might we be seeing United’s adoptive golden boy return to the club that natured him to greatness at the end of this season?
With all its history and baggage, this is far from the usual transfer story connecting star player A with top club B. After all, Ronaldo’s departure for the bright lights of the Bernabéu remains a pivotal and painful reference point in United’s recent history. That same summer Barcelona announced the dawn of the age of Guardiola with a stunning 2-0 victory over United in the Champions League final in Rome while in July Carlos Tevez left for Manchester City after the club decided against making his move permanent. This triple headed blast of upheaval sent the club into a period of shattered transition from which United are only now beginning to emerge.
Of this unholy trinity of events, Ronaldo’s defection to Spain was the most damaging. It stripped United of their best player, dented the club’s pedigree of flair and glamour, and, in one fell swoop, disarmed the team of its fear factor. Suddenly opponents discovered the courage to be bold and take the game to Ferguson’s men. The criminally over-worked and under-loved Michael Carrick soon found himself regularly overrun in midfield as the team’s soft, neglected underbelly became woefully exposed without the deterrent of the Portuguese’s explosive counterattack.
Each subsequent Manchester United side has struggled for prestige and respect. Like listening to songs with the volume down after leaving a live concert, the teams of the past few seasons have been unfulfilling for neutrals and pundits alike. While many in English football may have hated Ronaldo, he was also respected and appreciated as a footballing super weapon on the pitch. His absence from recent United line-ups has been the route cause for the paradox claims that Rooney and co are representatives of some of the weakest successful sides the club has ever produced. The press’ dissatisfaction with a Ronaldo-less United continues to be felt in the faint, hollow praise that reverberates through coverage of the current crop.
Meanwhile, Ronaldo’s new life as a Galáctico has been much less straightforward than he perhaps anticipated. Barcelona’s supremacy and Lionel Messi’s brilliance have denied him glory while the Real politick has taken its toll on his morale. While it’s always unclear how much of the political strife that stalks the Madrid team is genuine due to the intensity of the Spanish football press, those leaked stories about personal rifts and fractures within the club on grounds of nationality have refused to go away.
Regardless of whether an Old Trafford homecoming is likely or feasible, would the potential return of Ronaldo to United necessarily be a good move? Below are four points for and against the idea of Cristiano Ronaldo returning to his red, red roots.
Against: The money – can United really afford him?
The fee to bring Ronaldo back to Old Trafford is purported to be in the region £55M, with United would also need to stump up another £10M a-year in wages for their former star.
Considering the top-bracket wages paid to the likes of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, and the continued servicing and reduction of debts left over from the Glazer’s controversial leveraged takeover, these are far from trivial figures. Add in concerns about Financial Fair Play and the financial picture looks murkier still.
However, the club are reportedly in cahoots with Nike and Chevrolet’s parent company General Motors to bring Ronaldo back to Old Trafford, with both major sponsors providing a hefty proportion of the required cash to make the deal happen. Such an arrangement sounds eerily similar to the third-party ownership deals prevalent in South America, where sponsors buy and retain percentage shares in star players that clubs otherwise couldn’t afford.
The Portuguese is already signed up to Nike for individual endorsements, but with Real Madrid and Lionel Messi signed up to Adidas, his full marketing potential is compromised. Nike are eager to help fund a return to the brand friendly territory of Old Trafford. Similarly, Chevrolet are said to have identified Ronaldo as the ideal face for the car brand’s future campaigns, especially in emerging markets, and are prepared to dig deep in order to secure him as their figurehead.
United may not have the liquid capital spare to bring Ronaldo back to Manchester alone, but with the support of Nike and Chevrolet a return may be possible. Both coporate names will demand their pound of flesh from the player in exchange for that financial clout; a mess of muddled priorities and proxy ownership that could well lead to distraction.
For: He’s the second-best player in the world and an all-time great. Why wouldn’t you want him in your team?
Now a record-breaker in the Premier League and La Liga, Ronaldo has matured into a match-winning leader on the pitch scoring over 160 goals in four years at Real Madrid.
While Messi may yet be the best of this or any era, Ronaldo has undoubtedly earned a place at the top table of football’s historical elite. Since moving to Spain he has further honed his finishing and physique, becoming a truly decisive player almost entirely consumed by his end product. Free-kicks, headers, left foot, right foot; he has mastered every available method of scoring goals and has weaponised his body accordingly into a pure footballing machine.
Gone are the doubts that once lingered around his big-game mentality, with his recent El Clásico record against Barcelona a testament to his latter-day ability to cut through the occasion to deliver for his team. How could anyone pass up the opportunity to sign a player of this calibre?
Against: Is he too selfish for today’s Manchester United?
A young and raw Ronaldo arrived at Old Trafford in 2003, eventually becoming an exciting new dimension for United on the wings. As he developed he became the team’s cutting edge, providing an unprecedented goal-threat from midfield most notably scoring 42 goals in 49 games in 2007-8.
In his final season at United however, Ronaldo became the sole outlet in attack, making the team predictably one-dimensional at times and overly reliant on his form. As the goal burden grew on the winger, his approach became evermore selfish and individualistic, causing the play to be centralised around him and his abilities.
When Ronaldo left for Madrid, Rooney became the key man with the side taking on a more collective look and attitude. Valencia was signed to replace the departing Portuguese, offering more work rate and commitment to tracking back while becoming a prolific, one-man manufacturing line for crosses at his peak. The attacking impetus became more pluralised and evenly distributed throughout the team, while Rooney grabbed the mantle of goalscorer-in-chief.
At Real, Ronaldo’s development as a finisher continued. When league titles and cup trophies looked out of reach, his team mates switched their attention to feeding Ronaldo in his quest to overcome Messi in the race to win the annual Pichichi award for La Liga’s top scorer. Ronaldo was forced to become ever more selfish to satisfy the demand placed upon him. A quick glance at the number of long shots he attempts per match speaks volumes.
Could his single-minded ego be disruptive to today’s Manchester United side? The signings of Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa have only added to the development of the team’s collective play, propagated by the likes of Anderson, Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young, all of whom are comfortable playing through defences and tight spaces with one-two passes and clever movement.
By adding bulk and muscle, Ronaldo has become a far less nimble player – more likely to turn on the afterburners for straight-line speed to break defensive lines than the subtle feints and clever footwork of old. His expansive, long-striding style, long shot gluttony and ball-hogging instincts could yet be an anathema to the burgeoning collectivism of United’s current attackers.
Against: Tactical imbalance
Giving players such as Ronaldo a free role within a formation comes at a cost.
Freedom for one player equates to discipline for others elsewhere on the field. At Real Madrid, a holding duo of Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso are usually the foundation upon which such autonomy is allowed to flourish. Should Ronaldo return, United may have to sacrifice their collaborative, team focussed approach in favour of more limited, functional and defensive roles.
The prospect of a fluid front three of Ronaldo, Rooney and van Persie sets tongues wagging, but such fluidity, like in 2007/8, requires rigidity at the team’s core. United are no longer able to call upon a central defensive trio of Van der Sar, Ferdinand and Vidić at their respective peaks, and today, the defence has a younger, more dynamic feel. Jonny Evans, whose exceptional two-footed passing abilities add under-appreciated penetration to the flanks, has been a revelation at times this season while David De Gea can also be a major asset in terms of distribution and fast transitions to the frontline. Limiting the creative output from the rear-guard would be a shame.
Further up the pitch, Rooney would likely be expected to once again pick up Ronaldo’s workload tracking back, while Carrick and Cleverley are forced to become a stodgy midfield platform, limiting their ability to link up with the forward line.
During his time at Real, Ronaldo has only become more specialised. Giving him free reign again at Old Trafford will require a shift in tactical priorities that may hamper other talents in the Manchester United squad.
For: A signing of pure intent
Ronaldo would be the second marquee forward signing in as many seasons after van Persie’s arrival in the summer – a sign of pure, attacking intent from Sir Alex Ferguson as he approaches retirement in style.
Believers in the fabled United Way evangelise about the club’s traditional taste for fast, wide and recklessly exciting football full of improvisation from skilful players. Bring Ronaldo back to Old Trafford would further suggest that Ferguson’s tactical mind-set has shifted into a third and final chapter; from the gung-ho nineties and caution of the noughties to a more sophisticated take on the former as he seeks to end his reign at United with some real attacking flair.
Against: Won’t someone please think of the midfield?!
The lack of a ball winning midfielder in the United squad has be all but obvious since the demise of Owen Hargreaves and Darren Fletcher. For the past few seasons, the effects of this hole have been felt rather than addressed.
Rather than spend £55M on a luxury romance signing, why not recruit a player with the skills to snatch back the initiative when momentum and possession is lost in midfield? Kevin Strootman and Victor Wanyama are reported to be on United’s radar and would be far more vital additions at Old Trafford than another winger or striker.
For: Could this be Act III?
Ronaldo grew into a superstar at Manchester United, leaving to become a legendary forward at Real Madrid. What if the third stage in his development is to come home and rekindle his dribbling and ball skills in the open space of the Premier League?
There’s a romantic sense of narrative to talk of Ronaldo returning – Sir Alex Ferguson’s determination to win a third Champions League trophy; the redemption of Wayne Rooney; the peak years of Cristiano Ronaldo; the next step in a story that could yet come full-circle with a final bow out at Sporting Lisbon to return his first club to the top of Portuguese football.
Viva Ronaldo is still sung from the seats of Old Trafford and the travelling Manchester United away fans. What would they give to see their hero return to once again grab a game by the neck with the ball at his feet, dancing and driving into the heart of the storm in the opponents’ penalty box?