Cristiano Ronaldo was left out of Manchester United’s squad for their draw at Chelsea on Saturday after refusing to come on as a sub in their previous match against Tottenham; then-Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel rejected the opportunity to sign the forward in the summer.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s petulance in the dying minutes against Tottenham last Wednesday meant he was not part of United’s matchday squad against Chelsea at the weekend.
That kind of behaviour, as one figure from the home club pointed out, was precisely why Thomas Tuchel stood so firm – partly in detriment to his job security – to ensure the stadium did not become the 37-year-old’s Champions League landing spot.
Chelsea’s co-owner and acting sporting director, Todd Boehly, was seduced by the “commercial and entertainment lure” of Ronaldo after meeting his agent Jorge Mendes in June.
A special deck was commissioned for that gathering in Portugal, which illustrated the marketing phenomenon of the ‘Cristiano effect
The document had detailed every significant off-pitch metric that was enhanced for United by Ronaldo’s re-signing – from their announcement of the deal being the most-liked post by a sports team in social media history, supreme spikes in sponsorship analysis, to the increased desire for business in emerging markets.
Mendes would flag how the joint-biggest club in the world, by his measurement on par with Real Madrid, was still growing rapidly owing to his client – just as La Liga’s giants had.
The message was simply: Ronaldo sells. A fading force perhaps, but still financial gold. Boehly liked the statement of the new ownership reeling in one of the game’s greatest players, a megastar, an icon whose social following and brand eclipses Chelsea’s.
The footnote was that Ronaldo, having ended 2021/22 as United’s top scorer, hitting 24 in all competitions, was a guarantee of goals.
Tuchel did not want him and made it clear to Boehly that Chelsea did not need him. Every day, every story, every game would be about Ronaldo – and as one club employee joked, ‘CFC’ would have become code for ‘Cristiano FC.’
While an admirer of his career and achievements, Tuchel believed there was no footballing reason to incorporate Ronaldo into a progressive side that favoured a fluid, dynamic attack.
He also stressed the added attention, commercial uplift and social growth would not be worth the management hassle. Tuchel’s mentor, Ralf Rangnick, had already endured the pains of trying to incorporate a larger-than-life Ronaldo into a team-first approach at United.
It was complete failure. There was Ronaldo’s public annoyance at being substituted in a 3-1 win over Brentford in January, an awkward talk with Rangnick – without Harry Maguire present – in which the Portuguese stressed the captain should be dropped, and an unsanctioned trip to Portugal after informing the club doctor he had a hip-flexor injury.
That was all after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had lost the wheel, which he has privately reflected to ex-team-mates was in part due to the ‘Individual FC’ tag that was crystallised with Ronaldo.
Everything had to go through him. He was the gameplan, and while Ronaldo met that with goals, the underlying numbers of fellow attackers and the team in general suffered. He was brilliant, nostalgically so, at the expense of the collective.
Solskjaer’s command was in question over Ronaldo. When he left him out of the XI in a draw against Everton, a clip emerged of Sir Alex Ferguson telling MMA fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov “you should always start your best players.”
Ronaldo angrily walked straight towards the tunnel at the final whistle, swearing in his native tongue, which prompted an overflow of takes afterwards.
Tuchel could not understand why Chelsea would want to assume and save United from these problems.
At Stamford Bridge on Saturday, staff from the home side reflected that he was right. Graham Potter is understood to be in alignment with his predecessor’s position.
Ronaldo, naturally, is struggling with the adjustment from main man, Ballon d’Or deity and the axis around which a team spins. It must be an incredibly jarring experience no matter how much he would have considered the concept of time.
He is human, in an existence that often sketched him as supernatural. Ronaldo has also suffered immense personal tragedy amid this transition.
We need to be mindful of this. Unfortunately, he needs to be mindful of the professional reality of learning how to be pivotal without being all-powerful. No top club will funnel their on-pitch ambitions through him anymore. No top club made a move this summer, despite Mendes’ heavy pitching.
Even the old trick of playing clubs off against each other – leaking chats with Bayern Munich, Napoli, Atletico Madrid and a list of others – was no treat.
The blinder of using Manchester City to bait United into a late move in August 2021 (even though the latter insist they did a check on him earlier that summer) could not be replicated. Eyes are now wide open.
There is little faith the situation around interest will change in January and so Ronaldo has to learn how to collaborate and contribute in a squad role at Old Trafford.