The Cristiano Ronaldo circus moves to the East End tomorrow. Manchester United face West Ham United at the London Stadium and even the sight of David Moyes in the opposing dugout will not disturb the sense of wellbeing experienced by the Glazer family and their enablers.
Appointing Moyes to replace Sir Alex Ferguson eight years ago was the first in a series of bad decisions that led to United ceding their position as not only the dominant club in English football but as masters of their own locality. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team might be at the top of the Premier League after four games but it would be a huge surprise if Manchester City were below them in the table come next May.
The smugness coming from Old Trafford is astounding given recent events. Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman who will leave the post at the end of the year, yesterday said that he is “more confident than ever that we are on the right track”. He meant on the pitch, because some of the decisions in the boardroom have been mindbogglingly stupid. Joel Glazer – along with Liverpool’s John W Henry – was one of the driving forces behind the ludicrous plan to create a Super League in April. Almost everyone involved admits, at least in public, that the idea for an elite European competition was a mistake. But it has defined United’s course of action ever since.
The reaction of supporters was hostile to any idea of a breakaway league. Fans sent a huge message to the owners in May when they stormed the stadium before the Premier League game against Liverpool and caused the match to be postponed. United’s policies ever since have been designed to stop the backlash. It has worked.
There were few signs of protest when Ronaldo played the first game of his second spell against Newcastle United at Old Trafford last week. On the contrary, Cristianomania seized the stadium. Avram Glazer felt comfortable enough to take a seat in the directors’ box for the first time in two years. Super League? What Super League?
The Glazers realised early on that they could quell the rage around their leveraged buyout and continued milking of the club with a bit of success. They were lucky to have Ferguson as their lead facilitator in the 2000s. Now, in lieu of silverware, they have worked out a different way of pandering to the fanbase.
Ronaldo is the ultimate trophy signing. The 36-year-old has got off to a good start, scoring three goals in two games, but he is not a dominant presence anymore. The supporters have always loved him and it does not hurt that United beat City to his signature. Any victory over the neighbours has become a cause for celebration these days – although it should be noted that the Portuguese initially favoured a move to the Etihad. An ageing Ronaldo is unlikely to galvanise a title challenge, let alone a tilt at the Champions League.
The 2-1 defeat by Young Boys on Tuesday shows the scale of the challenge before Ronaldo. Solskjaer’s team, tactics and substitutions were all questionable. It is easy to put the loss down to the indiscipline of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, whose sending-off changed the game, and a moment of madness by Jesse Lingard that led to the winning goal. That is too simple. Solskjaer never looked in control after the red card. Compare the Norwegian’s performance with 10 men to Thomas Tuchel’s at Anfield when Chelsea went a man down against Liverpool before the international break. Tuchel strangled the game. That’s because he is a top-class manager. Solskjaer is not. The Glazers extended the fan favourite’s contract until 2024 during the summer but United need someone better in the dugout.
The American owners take a different view. The coach is less important than the players. They have had success with an egotistical, highly paid superstar this year that led them to conclude that age should not be a factor when one of the game’s greats becomes available. Their Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL team signed Tom Brady at the age of 42 when the veteran quarterback left the New England Patriots last year. Brady led Tampa Bay to Super Bowl victory in February – the seventh of his career – and vindicated the Glazers. But American football matches are conducted in a very different manner and quarterbacks, although in physical danger during every play, do not have to do the relentless running that will be expected of Ronaldo. The nature of gridiron allowed Brady to play on into his 40s without much dropoff. Few footballers in Ronaldo’s position have the legs to carry them so far, however committed they are to maintaining their body as closely to its peak as possible. Despite the Brady experience, United might have passed on Ronaldo if not for the lingering effect of the Super League.
Ronaldo’s presence will have an impact on Jadon Sancho, another summer recruit whose signing had one eye on the mood of the fanbase, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford. Given the ability of these young attackers, United might have been better diverting their resources to the midfield.
The Ronaldo honeymoon is likely to continue in east London. Moyes’s record against his former club is poor and the West Ham manager is without his main attacking threat. Michail Antonio is suspended after being sent off against Southampton last week. Yet, despite the presence of Ronaldo, United look some way from emerging from the post-Ferguson funk that began with the appointment of Moyes.
The Glazers continue to make mistakes. One day it will catch up with them. They won’t be able to hide behind Ronaldo for long.
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