Manchester United has been a slow but inevitable train wreck waiting to happen ever since the club parted ways with manager Jose Mourinho in December of 2018. But it took the short-sighted signing and return of Cristiano Ronaldo this season to accelerate the collapse of this squad built on a shaky foundation.
On paper, things do not appear so bad for the Red Devils. They began Matchweek 35 in sixth place in the English Premier League table. They reached the Knockout Stage of the UEFA Champions League before losing to Atletico Madrid in the Round of 16. No shame losing to that Spanish side that won La Liga last season and who have been perennial Knock State participants in the Champions League under manager Diego Simeone. But Manchester United has probably little chance of returning to the Champions League next season being five points behind the fourth-place Arsenal who holds the final qualify spot — and the Gunners have two matches in hand still relative to the Red Devils. The underlining dynamic is of a team that is moving quickly in the wrong direction.
The sacking of Mourinho in the middle of the 2018-19 campaign was warranted. He was in his third year managing the team — and that is about his shelf life before his prickly personality alienates both his players and upper management. The team was underperforming on the pitch. Management brought in a former player in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to serve as the caretaker manager — and the team responded by winning 14 of 17 matches at one point the rest of the way. But they also lost seven of nine during a stretch which triggered doubts that Solskjaer lacked the tactical expertise to maneuver a club with the high expectations of Manchester United. Ownership decided to make Solskjaer the permanent manager, yet with questions remaining about his tactical acumen and his ability to command the respect of the strong personalities in the locker room, it seemed like his termination was inevitable at some point.
The team did improve in the 2020-21 season from the sixth place Solskjaer steered the team in half a season to a tie for third place and qualification in the Champions League. The Red Devils then claimed second place last year with eight more points than they accumulated the previous season. Under those conditions, it was hard to get rid of Solskjaer despite it still seeming he could not bring the franchise their first English Premier League title since 2012-13. When the team started slow this season, ownership finally relieved him of his duties on November 21st. They brought in Ralf Rangnick as the caretaker manager.
The ironic aspect of the Solskjaer stewardship was that management was doing a good job of bringing in talent to compliment the exciting young players that were on the roster. The winter transfer period signing of Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon in 2020 turned out to be a brilliant move. He offered the team stability in the midfield that was not getting consistently from Paul Pogba, who was supposed to be the cornerstone of the franchise when he signed a budget-busting contract. With young scoring talents like Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Mason Greenwood, the Red Devils had legitimate attackers that could compete with Man City, Liverpool, and Chelsea. Even bringing Edinson Cavani from Paris Saint-Germain for 2020-21 offered the side a veteran attacker who could offer yet another scoring punch in the starting XI or off the bench.
Man United entered the 2021 summer transfer window in desperate need of holding midfielders with vertical passing skills. Instead, this is when management went in a different direction to make a big splash by resigning Ronaldo. Perhaps the reunion with the international superstar and former player was a boon for public relations in the short term, but his addition to the roster disrupted the chemistry of the team. Ronaldo was no Cavani — if he was leaving Juventus to return to Manchester for the first time since the 2008-09 season, he was coming as the team’s talisman. But at 36-years-old, Ronaldo’s talents were on the decline — this is why he left Real Madrid for a Serie A side in Juventus three years prior. Bringing back a Prodigal Son is what a team does look to re-establish relevance. This Man United team was still on the ascent, albeit with perhaps the wrong manager.
Ronaldo sucked all the air out of the room. And he replaced Fernandes as the leader on the pitch while taking over penalty kick responsibilities. His role as the number nine forward displaced the role Rashford, Martial, and Greenwood would often take. It was like the brother 15-years older than all his siblings coming back home to live at the parents' house and then expecting everything to return to the way it was when he left.
Ronaldo has been about as good as expected. In 31 EPL matches, he has 17 goals. His three assists are light — and make a statement. But the productivity of his teammates — the ones that are still around — has diminished. Fernandes has scored nine goals and assisted on seven goals in the EPL after scoring 18 goals and assisting on 14 more in the English top-flight last season. Rashford is in a complete funk with only four goals and two assists after registering 11 goals and 11 assists last year and 17 goals with eight assists two years ago. Martial became disgruntled and transferred to Sevilla in January. Greenwood is unavailable after getting in trouble with the law. Cavani has played 10 minutes in the last 12 EPL matches after scoring 10 goals and added four assists in part-time work last season. And the team still lacks quality defensive midfielders.
Change is afoot at Old Trafford in the offseason with the franchise finally making the big splash in leadership by hiring Erik ten Hag away from Ajax. It remains to be seen if retaining a 37-year-old Ronaldo will be in his long-term plans, but that seems unlikely. Pogba needs to go. The club needs to fix the Rashford decline and build around Jaden Sancho who they also brought in last year (a much better fit with the younger core talent if Ronaldo was not around). Fernandes should remain a solid investment. The Red Devils are desperate for world-class defensive midfielders.
Things will not be easy. Manchester City and Liverpool are not just the best two teams in the EPL, they are the best two clubs in Europe. Chelsea is a step behind and has the challenge of acquiring new ownership — but they also won the Champions League last season so they are dynamite for a third-place club. Arsenal appears to be firmly in a promising rebuild. Tottenham remains solid.
Man United was in a much better position a year ago at this time. Making a hard decision on Solksjaer earlier probably would have served the club better. In hindsight, the Ronaldo signing appears to be the actions of a uber-rich club still smelling the fumes from the Super League money-grab aspirations that went up in smoke.
Best of luck — Frank.