Man United manager Ralf Rangnick tried to make a joke out of it, saying that if getting treatment in Portugal makes Ronaldo score a hat trick upon his return, he’s welcome to go every week. (Heck, maybe he can commute.)
Each of the three goals he scored in Saturday’s 3-2 win over Tottenham Hotspur was special, but his performance went well beyond his scoring exploits. We saw Ronaldo drop deeper in certain situations, and we saw him thrive with wide support.
Given the way everything gets exaggerated and turns into a psychodrama at Old Trafford, the importance of the result and the performance can’t be overstated. Prior to this, United had gone three games without a win: a draw with Atletico Madrid, a scoreless home draw with Watford and the 4-1 thumping in the derby.
Ronaldo rightly took the headlines, and his day was only amplified by the presence of one Tom Brady in the stands. (In fact, the day after the game, Brady let the world know that he was not going to retire and would, in fact, be back for his 23rd season. It’s fun to wonder whether seeing another golden oldie perform like that influenced his decision.) But there were other bright spots for United.
Jadon Sancho looked sharp out wide, Fred continue his sparkling form in the middle of the park and Paul Pogba had a big influence in Bruno Fernandes’ absence. You wonder to what degree these factors are related, especially Pogba. He wasn’t relegated to playing deep or wide, he had the freedom to roam, and he interpreted the role with personality and quality.
(It’s likely a moot point if, as expected, Pogba moves elsewhere after his contract expires in June, but it’s also a reminder that sometimes clubs would be wise to think about how pieces fit together rather than simply assembling Panini sticker collections of pricey stars.)
Of course, some might say that Ronaldo fits into that category as well. In many ways, at this stage of his career, he actually exemplifies it. If you want him to be a difference-maker, you need to adjust the pieces around him to make it work, and you need to think long and hard about what you want him to do and how you want him to play. That much ought to be obvious.
In fact, going forward, the single most important question United ought to be asking prospective managers is this: “Is Ronaldo part of your plan? And, if so, how do you plan to use him?” How they answer that question will tell you a lot about them, and not just about their tactical nous. (Presumably, Rangnick had a plan for Ronaldo, too.)
They’ll know United have committed an enormous amount of resources to Ronaldo through June 2023. And equally, they’ll know that given the size of his wages — unless he decides to take a pay cut, or make some sort of sentimental choice in a World Cup year (like a return to Sporting) — it will be difficult to move him on.
Of course, it’s not just about asking the right questions; it’s about knowing how to evaluate the answers (because there is no correct answer here). And in that department, the track record of United’s decision-makers hasn’t been good.
As for Spurs, their yo-yo results continue, but the difference here is that the loss came accompanied by a performance (unlike recent defeats to Middlesbrough and Burnley, when they were awful).
The goals themselves – the penalty for a handball and the Harry Maguire’s own goal – were gifts, but they showed a reaction to get back into the game each time. Dejan Kulusevski looks sharp and while they could definitely have defended better, there were baby steps of progress in that department too.
Still, Saturday wasn’t about them. It was about a GOAT candidate still going strong at 37 years of age.
Note: This article is written by Gabriele Marcotti and has been published at ESPN FC