Manchester United and Cristiano Ronaldo are both distracted by questions over the forward’s future, but it has become clear that the best solution is for him to leave as soon as possible
After Ronaldo had made his feelings clear in the summer that he wanted to leave, United acted reasonably at the time. But just like the time they kept Wayne Rooney away from Chelsea against his wishes, it now looks like the Red Devils hierarchy may have made a mistake.
For Rooney, United could not suffer the loss of their star player so soon after Alex Ferguson’s departure, as they struggled in the league under David Moyes. For Ronaldo, with the club in crisis after appointing yet another new manager and struggling on the pitch and in the transfer market, they could ill-afford to lose perhaps the most high-profile player in the world.
As well as that, United knew that Marcus Rashford’s form was poor, that Anthony Martial’s fitness and future was constantly in doubt, and that it could be a while before Mason Greenwood plays again.
Losing their top goalscorer and one of their few world-class players could not be considered.
However, all the reasons that Ronaldo might have been judged expendable have come to pass. At 37, he is not the irresistible force he once was.
As Erik ten Hag has focused on a team that can keep the ball, press across the pitch and play as a collective, it does not necessarily matter that Ronaldo is their best striker, because he does not have the requisite skills to make the most of the preferred system. United need a better and more ruthless striker than Rashford, but one who can outrun Ronaldo.
Both Rashford and Martial have improved compared to last year, too, which has mitigated the lack of arrivals to play through the middle, but if Ronaldo were to leave in January then a loan option to play just as well as the pair of them should not be beyond even the limited capabilities of Darren Fletcher and John Murtough.
And for the Portuguese international, the reasons he wanted to move on remain. He wants to play for a side that gets regular Champions League football. He might have lost some of his edge, but he would remain dangerous for many of the top four sides across Europe. He could have to adjust his expectations on salary but he would still have the chance to add to his goal tally for the next few years. A move to the Middle East or America feels ultimately inevitable, but his quality is not yet dimmed enough for him to consider semi-retirement.
However, there is no need for him to sit on the sidelines, anywhere. He does not need to hang out on the edges of a trophy-winning team to make up for a lack of success earlier in his career, and he does not need to nurse his involvement because of a lack of fitness. Ronaldo is still capable of playing every week, if not more, and gains nothing from being a substitute for a manager that doesn’t want him, in a team that no longer needs him.
There’s more to consider. Right now, the relationship between the club and player, and player and fans, is strained, but it is not broken. Ronaldo made a successful return to the club he built his name, and for all his antagonistic efforts to display his unhappiness, he has not caused internecine chaos – yet. When Ronaldo retires he will want to look back on his legacy with pride, and part of that is more than just his goalscoring records and trophies; it is also the respect he will have from many United, Real Madrid, Juventus and Portugal fans.
Better, then, that Ronaldo and United co-operate to bring their association to a close on mutually acceptable terms rather than blow up a profitable and meaningful relationship, not least because it may still be handy to rekindle it down the line once he is retired.
For now, Ronaldo and United need to work out how to coast to the World Cup. The player needs to stay match fit and sharp, and the team needs him to behave so they can focus, and they may even need an excellent striker who can lead the line or take some of the slack in the busy period before the World Cup.
Gary Neville was right, the time has come to settle the situation. For United and Ronaldo there is only one answer – to let him leave with the minimum of fuss.