Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the game’s great players. His brace of goals in Portugal’s 2-1 victory over Ireland made him the highest scorer in men’s international football and underlined his stature. His return to Manchester United promises to bring more style and drama to the Premier League. Exciting things happen when Ronaldo is around.
The 36-year-old is not the same player that left Old Trafford for Real Madrid 12 years ago. He is much less mobile and not as dynamic. That is balanced by his wealth of experience. Ronaldo is a much craftier individual who has learnt to marshal his declining physical powers and save his energy for when it is needed.
The main question about his “homecoming” – it is more like a return to his student accommodation – is whether his presence in the squad will have an adverse effect on United’s crop of talented young forwards. The club are top heavy with attackers and already have one veteran in 34-year-old Edinson Cavani, who is giving up the No 7 shirt to his new teammate. United paid £73m to Borussia Dortmund for Jadon Sancho this summer and the 21-year-old expected to be in competition for places with Marcus Rashford, 23, and Mason Greenwood, 19. Anthony Martial is in the mix, too, although the 25-year-old has not developed into the striker that United hoped he would become.
One of the justifications for Ronaldo’s arrival is that he will become a role model for the younger players. The idea that the Portuguese will become a mentor to his inexperienced colleagues is seductive. Who would not want to learn from one of the giants of the modern era?
The problem is that there is little evidence to suggest that Ronaldo is anywhere near that stage in his career where he is happy to take a back seat in the squad and contribute to the development of his teammates. The ego has landed in Manchester and expects to be the main man.
There is plenty to learn from Ronaldo. His commitment is awe-inspiring but it is directed at his own glory rather than the good of the team. He is supremely fit to the point of being obsessed with his body. At Real and Juventus, the coaching staff would gently take the mickey out of him by saying, “your body’s looking good today, Cris.” Ronaldo was impervious to the mockery. He did look good, he would agree, checking for proof in the nearest mirror.
The vanity is reflected on the pitch. His frustration at Juventus was frequently evident, especially when teammates did not live up to expectations.
Those who trained with Ronaldo are impressed by his appetite for work. Even in his mid-thirties he approaches physical workouts with enthusiasm that younger players might want to emulate. Once the sessions turn to tactics, Ronaldo tends to switch off. When Rafa Benitez suggested that the forward watch some clips that illustrated how he could contribute more to the team when the opposition had the ball, Ronaldo responded by offering to send his boss a DVD of his goals. He is a difficult player to manage unless broadly allowed to do his own thing. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may have his hands full.
Most of those who have worked with Ronaldo say he is likeable but self-centred. If he does not help those around him it is more likely that he has not noticed that they need assistance rather than deliberately ignoring their plight. He leads by example rather than encouragement. The Real dressing room had three different factions, which one of the coaches summed up succinctly: “Sergio Ramos led the Spanish, the foreigners gathered around Luka Modic. Ronaldo was the leader of the dickheads.”
This was said with a semblance of humour as well as a dollop of irritation. In many respects Ronaldo is a perfect professional but he is unlikely to emerge as a guru for United’s youth movement.
If the likes of Sancho, Greenwood and Rashford can adopt Ronaldo’s best qualities they will be learning from someone with an absolute dedication to making the most of his already prodigious talent. The onus will be on his teammates to absorb the lessons, though. Old Trafford’s returning superstar will be focused on his own excellence, not the development of others.
As great as he is, Ronaldo may be a barrier to the evolution of United’s youthful attack. In the long term that could hurt the club.
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