Cristiano Ronaldo’s emotional return to Manchester United after 12 years away is one of the summer’s biggest feel-good stories. Having flirted with crosstown rivals Manchester City for a while, Ronaldo’s signing was met with euphoria among United supporters. But it also raises several questions.
Did United sign their former star just to keep him from the clutches of the “noisy neighbours”? Or did the transfer have more to do with United owners the Glazers’ commercial aspirations?
The answer is not straightforward.
United’s current squad is stacked with attacking talent. But what it lacks is inconsistency. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has experimented with both Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial upfront, but neither guarantees the 25-30 goals a championship-chasing side craves. Edinson Cavani has been there and done it all but, at 34, cannot be relied upon to deliver every week during a long campaign. Mason Greenwood, on the other hand, is still in his teens and has a long way to go before he can be the focal point of United’s attack.
Ronaldo guarantees those goals. In his three years at Juventus, the Portugal captain scored 81 goals in 98 league appearances — a staggering record in a league notorious for goalless draws and 1-0 scorelines. To put the number into perspective, Ronaldo scored 29 goals in the 2020-21 Serie A season. Chelsea’s new £97.5-million signing Romelu Lukaku scored 24.
While questions are being raised about Ronaldo’s arrival hindering Greenwood’s development, nothing could be farther from the truth. Greenwood, like Ronaldo, is two-footed and plays out wide, occasionally being deployed in a central role. Ronaldo’s elite status, winning mentality, and sheer professionalism are facets that not just Greenwood, but his colleagues in United’s attack could aspire to for a long career at the top and there is no better mentor than the Portuguese maestro.
Ronaldo not only guarantees goals, but also fills the gaping leadership-shaped hole in United’s squad. The 36-year-old is a proven winner but still remains as driven and hungry for success as he was in his youth when he proclaimed himself to be the best player in the world in a television interview.
The signing of Ronaldo also adds another dimension to the United attack, which has relied heavily on midfield runners such as Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba. Ronaldo’s movement inside the box and heading ability from set pieces add a cutting edge to United’s sometimes-one dimensional forward play.
No longer the lightning-quick winger who lit up Old Trafford on his debut against Bolton Wanderers in 2003, Ronaldo has reinvented himself as box striker who now scores goal for fun.
When Juventus signed Ronaldo for €100 million in 2018, Chairman Andrea Agnelli had said it was the first time they had bought a player for more than just sporting reasons. Ronaldo’s star power manifested itself on the first day as Juventus sold over 520,000 shirts bearing his name and number within 24 hours, generating a whopping $62.4 million.
That stardust was evident once again as United’s stock surged 8 per cent, adding £212 million to the share value, following the announcement of Ronaldo’s arrival. The club’s post announcing the signing raked in 12.5 million likes, the most for a sports team in Instagram history. The stock surge means Ronaldo has already paid off his measly €23 million (€15 million upfront plus another €8 million in add-ons) transfer fee and then some.
With Ronaldo taking up a new number at United (his preferred No. 7 is occupied by Cavani), the club is certain to ship more than a few shirts and add a few million pounds to its coffers.
Calming the fans
The Glazer family that has owned United since 2005 has been hugely unpopular with the supporters. Fan groups, former players, and managers have all criticised the owners for their lack of interest in the football side of things and running the club like a business. Their highly-leveraged buyout saddled United with millions of pounds in debt, while taking out a lumpsum amount every year as dividend payout. The decision to join the breakaway European Super League with 11 other clubs was the final straw as fans revolted at the idea of a closed league. That made the Glazers loosen the purse strings, sanctioning over £100 million to bring in Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane. The signing of Ronaldo, that too from the under the noses of the club’s bitter crosstown rivals, is the icing on the cake and could give the Glazers some breathing space.
For a 36-year-old still at the peak at his powers, Ronaldo brings back the aura and stardust that had been missing from Old Trafford since 2013. And if he can be even half the player he was during his first stint, Cristiano Ronaldo in 2021 could still turn out to be Manchester United’s best signing since Cristiano Ronaldo in 2003.