Cristiano Ronaldo was on his way to Manchester City this summer. So what exactly were Manchester United supposed to do?
Ronaldo, and the executives behind his switch to Old Trafford, are collecting plenty of heat now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign has ended in ruin, yet few address the alternative. Ronaldo at City. Ronaldo, scoring goals for a much better-balanced team.
United acted because that was a future too horrible to contemplate. What if he had succeeded down the road? If we think the atmosphere around United has been mutinous of late, imagine it then?
Cristiano Ronaldo has been seen by some as a major problem at Manchester United
But without him they would have no chance of Champions League progression
Ronaldo isn’t the problem at United. There have been a heap of them and it has negated his ability to have an impact, but take his goals away and Tuesday’s game against Villarreal would be close to a dead rubber.
Ronaldo’s interventions have been worth five points to Manchester United in Europe this season. Without them, United would be bottom of Group G, Atalanta would be out of reach and Villarreal would need a point from their last two matches.
Ronaldo won a game with the latest European goal United have ever scored — excluding extra time, obviously — levelled another in stoppage time and won a third in the 81st minute.
United were drawing 1-1 when Solskjaer took Ronaldo off in the 72nd minute against Young Boys. They lost 2-1. How can this guy be the problem?
Ronaldo, it is argued, does not suit United’s system. Perhaps, but then it needed a coach of greater wit than Solskjaer to accommodate him. The late gift of a demanding centre forward may have been unexpected, but that is no excuse for not making best use of it. When United function well, as they did at Tottenham, Ronaldo fits in perfectly.
Ronaldo joined a team with a lack of balance and is being used as a scapegoat
In Europe, opponents plainly fear him. If United had the balance that City possess, this wouldn’t be an issue. It is why the prospect of Ronaldo in blue caused such consternation.
Old friends intervened, including Sir Alex Ferguson, to tell him there was only one English club he could join. Not too many worries about team shape there. Not too many predictions of upset. Ferguson’s logic was not unreasonable.
Get Ronaldo on the field and figure out how best to serve him. Even on Saturday at Watford, United’s only goal came from a sweetly-cushioned Ronaldo header that left Donny van de Beek no option but to score. Ronaldo’s domestic form has been the worst of it, but he’s still in the top 10 goalscorers in the Premier League this season and the top 20 for assists — albeit with considerable ties.
This is a failing, floundering United team. So think what impact he might have had at City, better served and better coached? What if he had scored the one goal they needed at home to Southampton, or the third that was required against Liverpool?
United have been criticised for dithering but moving to sign him was a rare decisive act
Solskjaer was dismissed and it is wrong to lay any blame at Ronaldo’s door
What if he had propelled City to the top of the league? How would that have played across town? There would have been uproar.
United would have been damned for their inefficiency, again. What, Ed and the boys couldn’t get this one over the line? They let Ronaldo — United’s Ronaldo, the player who sees Ferguson as his surrogate father — sign for their big rivals? What are they doing?
After so much dithering of late, buying Ronaldo was one of the few times when United acted decisively. One minute he was going to City, the next United were interested, the next the deal was done.
We can argue it was impulsive, that other areas of the team needed more urgent improvement but, on the day, United looked to have stolen a march on their rivals.
No rival was happy at the thought of Ronaldo playing upfront for Manchester United. The failure is what has unfolded since — the inability of the coaches to make such a coup work.
RAFIQ SINS DON’T EXCUSE YORKS
As ever, the issue of institutional racism is quickly supplanted by the sins of individuals. Azeem Rafiq equating Jewishness to meanness is reprehensible, but it is not the same as what appears to be a conspiracy running through Yorkshire Cricket Club.
Equally, Alex Hales blacking up in fancy dress as Tupac Shakur for a party in 2009 is crass, but not far removed from the episodes of Little Britain in 2005 in which David Walliams appeared in blackface and a fat suit as Desiree. The audience was already laughing before he opened his mouth. Why? Because he’s a slim, white man pretending to be a fat, black woman.
Papa Lazarou, the character that recently got certain episodes of The League of Gentlemen withdrawn from BBC iPlayer, appeared in an anniversary edition as recently as 2017. So these are molehills compared to the mountains cricket needs to address and should be treated accordingly.
Azeem Rafiq’s anti-Semitic remarks were reprehensible but by no means the same as the apparent conspiracy running through Yorkshire County Cricket Club
FIFTH IS NO GOOD, ARSENAL SHOULD BE FLYING
A lot of excitement has been generated by Arsenal’s recent run, ended emphatically by Liverpool on Saturday. The positivity, however, overlooks a crucial issue: this should be their transformative season.
Think Leicester in 2015-16 or Chelsea under Antonio Conte the following year. Those teams won titles in seasons when they were unencumbered by commitments to European football.
Leicester had considerable difficulties compared to their elite rivals, but their one advantage was that, once removed from the FA Cup by Tottenham on January 20, they could focus entirely on the Premier League.
Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal should be pushing on this season and fifth is not good enough
No midweek commitments across the continent for them, no concerns for Claudio Ranieri about resting players. He remains known as the Tinkerman, yet barely touched that Leicester team in the second part of the year. Changes were for injury alone and Ranieri’s starting XI can be recited as confidently as Brian Clough’s for Nottingham Forest close to 40 years earlier.
Ranieri played a weekend game and then prepared for his next one in seven days’ time. The schedule was a vital contributor to Leicester’s success. Conte’s, too. Chelsea got to the FA Cup final in 2017, so there was one distraction, but none of their ties went to a replay or even extra-time, so again the coach was able to throw his focus into the league campaign.
In one way, then, Mikel Arteta is fortunate. In a week like this, Arsenal fall off the radar. Teams around them are travelling to Villarreal, Vienna and Murska Sobota in Slovenia; others are preparing to face Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, Porto and Legia Warsaw. Arsenal were well beaten at Anfield but the moment the final whistle blew, Arteta could focus on beating Newcastle at home, at 12.30pm the following Saturday.
The Gunners should only see Champions League qualification as forward progress
So while many are happy with the current fifth place given Arsenal’s start, it isn’t good enough.
In 2015-16, when Liverpool finished eighth and out of the European places, Jurgen Klopp used the following campaign to clinch fourth and the club has never been outside the Champions League since.
It was the start of the era which brought the first Premier League title and another Champions League win. Arsenal are some way off that yet. But with clarity of purpose, they should not see anything below a top-four finish as positive.
SO FOOLISH TO SHUT DOWN RACE DEBATE
Back when there used to be a programme called Sunday Supplement, four white guys could frequently be found discussing racism in football.
Over time that changed, and thankfully so. We heard from more diverse voices, we heard personal experiences.
So Nazir Afzal, a lawyer, put the cause back several years by shutting down Fiona Bruce on Question Time last week, when asked about racism in cricket.
Bruce turned to Afzal rather than any of the other four white panellists and he replied: ‘The brown person will answer first.’
Bruce immediately withdrew and asked Afzal if he thought she was wrong to look to him initially. ‘I think so,’ he said. So Bruce instead questioned Jordan Peterson, a white, conservative cultural commentator.
What a mess. Ask a black person and it’s stereotyping, ask a white person and it’s insensitive, so the conversation truly has nowhere to go. This, apparently, is progress.
Do not feel sorry for Wayne Rooney. Derby County is actually a great place to learn management.
Sunday’s win over Bournemouth was an outstanding result for which Rooney was rightly praised. Yet had Derby lost, it would have been no reflection on the manager, because he is perceived to be in charge of a doomed, failing enterprise.
If he can somehow keep Derby up despite a 21-point deduction, he would be hailed as one of the brightest young managers in the country. If they drop, it’s hardly his fault.
Wayne Rooney could emerge as a top manager but it is hard to see his faults while at Derby
It was similar for Daniel Farke at Norwich. While the club failed to display any ambition to remain in the Premier League, he was protected. When they were relegated in 2019-20, he was absolved of responsibility.
Even this season with investment, when Norwich couldn’t win he was still considered sympathetically. Only now, with Dean Smith having restored Billy Gilmour to the team and Norwich looking better for it, is it being considered Farke may have made mistakes.
At Derby, we may find out if Rooney has what it takes to be a great boss — but identifying his faults will be harder.
NORWAY’S PAIN CAN BE HAALAND’S (AND HIS AGENT’S GAIN)
Erling Haaland had a chequered campaign as Norway failed to qualify for the World Cup. He missed crucial matches and three of his five goals in Group G were scored in one fixture at home to Gibraltar.
Against this, it means as most of the world’s finest players are jetting off to Qatar in the middle of next season, Haaland can remain relatively rested and fresh. It could even be a unique selling point this summer. Mino Raiola gets lucky again.
Christian Purslow of Aston Villa was the major player behind the ousting of Premier League chairman Gary Hoffman, and appears to have positioned himself in the influential role previously occupied by Bruce Buck of Chelsea. Uniting worried owners over Newcastle was an easy win, however.
It may get rather more complicated from here, particularly if Newcastle push back against regulations that seem expressly designed to stunt their growth, concocted by a cartel.
Christian Purslow secured an easy win in uniting owners worried about Newcastle’s takeover
SOUTHGATE DEAL IS AS SENSIBLE AS HE IS
Gareth Southgate’s new contract will not go down well with some critics. Why, it will be asked, are the FA awarding a rise and an extension when England’s fate in Qatar is unknown? Wouldn’t it be sensible to see how the World Cup unfolds, then decide?
To which, a simple question. Who’s better? Who out there could be a better England manager than Southgate right now? We’re talking English-born candidates, obviously.
It seems the FA have seen the light on that issue, so we can forget about trying to wheedle Pep Guardiola away from Manchester City. The only deliberation is whether, on form, a better English manager exists, one that matches Southgate’s record in international football, or has displayed sufficient potential to suggest he might. If not, why would the FA run the risk of losing the best man for the job?
Gareth Southgate could have been a target of top clubs if his contract was allowed to run down
This time next year Southgate would be weeks away from being out of contract. Suppose Manchester United, Tottenham or Arsenal were in the market for a manager? There could be a real risk of losing him. Suppose England then exceeded expectations in Qatar? The FA would be lambasted for their lack of foresight.
So this is the smart move, certainly considering that if England flop dismally, Southgate would probably not have the desire to stay anyway.
He’s a sensible man; he can read a room. He wouldn’t stay on as a burden to the team.
This way, he protects his compensation, the FA protect themselves from club suitors and the best man gets the job.
It’s all very sensible, all very Southgate.
Exeter will play Bradford in the FA Cup next week, after their first round tie was negated by confusion over substitutions.
Exeter manager Matt Taylor had already used five when the game went to extra-time. Mistakenly believing this afforded an additional replacement, he introduced Joshua Key. The officials, equally muddled, allowed him to do so. Exeter then won 3-0.
But bonus extra-time substitutes are not permitted any more. They were when substitutes were capped at three across 90 minutes; a fourth could go on in the additional period. And, yes, Taylor should have known this practice ended with the introduction of five substitutes. Certainly, the officials should have understood.
Yet this is what happens when rules are adjusted at the end of every season. The authorities have ordered a replay, not an expulsion, because they know, at heart, that they have caused this.
Matt Taylor assumed he was allowed an extra substitute against Bradford and this kind of confusion happens when rules are constantly tinkered with