The Portuguese made a sensational return to the Premier League giants after 12 years.

The late hours on August 27 saw an extraordinary series of events in Europe culminating in the Internet close to reaching breaking point. There was excitement across the globe. Also, the share price of Manchester United went up by 5.8% to $18.29. This was no ordinary series of events as it marked the return of Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United.

This was when just hours before there were strong rumours of a move to cross-town rivals Manchester City. Fans directed GIFs, images and emotional tweets labelling him a ‘snake’, ‘traitor’ and other colourful descriptions of treachery at the 36-year old Portuguese superstar.

How the move happened

Fans quickly redacted these posts Manchester United’s hierarchy sprang into action. This was backed by messages, conversations from former teammates and legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson. All of this resulted in Cristiano Ronaldo choosing to return to Old Trafford after 12 years.

With each second, the seemingly impossible was turning to reality. The summer across Europe was dominated by most Englishmen chanting ‘It’s coming home’. Now it was the turn of a certain section of Englishmen to chant the same thing. Except that it was welcoming home a player who achieved cult status at Manchester United.

It was a dream come true for nearly every Manchester United fan, old and new. The Internet exploded with fans rejoicing after Manchester United confirmed signing Cristiano Ronaldo on their official social accounts. In what was a highly active transfer window for the Red Devils, Ronaldo’s return was the cherry on the cake. They had addressed the lack of a fast center half in Raphael Varane. They also concluded the three-year long pursuit of Jadon Sancho. Bringing home Ronaldo was a far cry from the slow, reactive nature of the United board that fans were witness to every summer.

When we do cut past the euphoria and nostalgia that this transfer brings to the table, fans of both Manchester United and other clubs could wonder, how does this transfer affect both the club and the player?

United improving under Solksjaer

Ever since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over the reins of the mess left behind by Jose Mourinho on December 2018, it has been a tough and frustrating journey for the club’s fans across the globe. There was a clear intention to return to the principles that defined the Sir Alex Ferguson era. Quick passing, emphasis on fast wingers, a focus on youth development and a never-say-die attitude – all under the helm of a legend whose late goal brought home the Champions League in 1999, had every fan chanting his name from the get-go.

A host of semi-final disappointments and a crushing defeat to Villareal in last season’s Europa League final were signs that the team was making progress both on and off the pitch. There was a return of the leadership group and a spine in the form of de Gea, Maguire, Fernandes and Rashford. This complemented world class players like Paul Pogba and Edinson Cavani. All these were a sign of how Solskjaer’s ‘layer-by-layer’ evolution of the team was taking shape. The emergence of Mason Greenwood was exactly the kind of talent that was a hallmark of the Ferguson era.

Sancho and Varane were missing pieces of the puzzle. They have given the manager more tools to deploy various tactics and formations to break down any type of opposition. The priority was to also bring in a defensive midfielder to replace the ageing Nemanja Matic and an erratic Fred. This was to accommodate the mercurial talents of Pogba, Fernandes, Cavani, Sancho, Greenwood and Rashford. Rumours also linked with Saul Niguez, Eduardo Camavinga and Declan Rice with a move to Old Trafford. But instead, this requirement had to play second fiddle when it became clear that the 36-year old Ronaldo was available.

Impact of Ronaldo

Yes, Cristiano Ronaldo is not your average 36-year old footballer whose powers are their wane. This was a man who had outscored Romelu Lukaku in the Serie A scoring charts in the 2020-21 season. He also brings intensity into each training session and fitness levels that most footballers aspire towards.

Manchester United are no strangers when it comes to tapping into the leadership and mentoring that senior footballers bring to a young team. Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are names that do spring to mind. Cristiano Ronaldo would be a great influence especially to the younger players like Greenwood, Rashford and Sancho with an aim to elevating their game to the next level. It is very rare to see a crop of young players getting an opportunity to learn under three elite strikers of the game in Solskjaer, Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The commercial potential for next season especially is immense. This, given that most United fans would have already purchased their jerseys for the ongoing season. The opportunity in terms of social media following, increased fan base through fans of the player rather than the club, match viewership, gate revenue and attracting players from Europe is very much there.

Some worrying signs

However, one can ask was signing Cristiano Ronaldo really a part of United’s plan? Was this a signing that Woodward, Fletcher, Murtaugh and Solskjaer envisioned all the way back in June as a way to compete for titles? One of Solskjaer’s drawbacks has been his inability to shoehorn as much attacking talent into one team. This creates a lack of balance. It has led to Pogba playing on the left side of an attacking trident behind either Greenwood or Cavani and this could also allow Bruno Fernandes to play centrally to dictate play.

The squad has greater depth in the attacking and defensive third of the pitch. But the key piece of the jigsaw is linking these two together through a cohesive midfield. This was actually the requirement that Manchester United needed to fulfill after signing Varane.

Cristiano Ronaldo has evolved from an old-fashioned winger to a goal poacher. This is not exactly suited to the high press game that Solskjaer plays. In fact he ranked in the bottom 2% of forwards among Europe’s top five leagues in pressures/ 90 minutes last season. This is a worrying sign given that Solskjaer wants his team pressing cohesively from the front.

In addition, he is not a player who will like being on the bench. He will want to start each game. This would be a selection headache for Solskjaer who has been key in Greenwood’s continued development and ensuring that Cavani stayed for an additional year. The squad have more leaders and title-winning pedigree with the addition of Cristiano Ronaldo. But fans need to wait and see whether it can translate to on-pitch results and titles.

Ronaldo – closing the loop on his illustrious career in the Theatre of Dreams

The return of Cristiano Ronaldo to the Premier League in the twilight of his career is a stark contrast to Lionel Messi. The 36-year old has always been someone who never liked being in a comfort zone. It is this attitude that has driven his insatiable drive for more trophies and elevating his game with each passing year. His adaptability from one league to another has only added to his existing repertoire of skills.

A return to the intense Premier League over the comforts of lesser leagues shows how Ronaldo’s hunger for new challenges. This will help in cementing his legacy at the club.

Manchester United offers Ronaldo a chance to do just that. It is in many ways a scenario resembling the one in which a teenage Cristiano Ronaldo made his debut in 2003. Ferguson was building his next title winning team to compete against a seemingly invincible Arsenal and an emerging Chelsea under Roman Abramovich. This time one of Ferguson’s proteges is doing precisely the same thing in 2021. This is the kind of challenge that he would relish given how much Ronaldo has benefited from the club.

However, his role could be limited given his age. The development of younger players and his fit into Solskjaer’s tactical system are also factors. How he accepts this will probably shape the way United’s season pans out in which Solskjaer must win silverware. This is given that he has the signings and depth that he has been craving.

Ronaldo’s return to the Theatre of Dreams would be a perfect swansong to an illustrious career at a club which he loves. This is exactly the opposite of how he felt at Juventus.

Both Manchester United and Cristiano Ronaldo are set to benefit immensely mutually as a result of this transfer. However, how the two find a balance in a thing that will unfold as time goes by.

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