Man United have always needed a proven frontman during Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford’s Old Trafford careers but now they have assumed roles they first occupied under Louis van Gaal.
The last word Cristiano Ronaldo uttered when he left the Amex Stadium in May was “bye”. Brighton was where Ronaldo was serenaded by Manchester United supporters who spat “you’re not fit to wear the shirt” at the others in red after a diabolical 4-0 thrashing.
Separated from his teammates by supporters, Ronaldo then left the stadium separately. Ronaldo retreated into the dressing room as security arranged for his car to edge as close to the exit as possible. Ronaldo must have thought his exit was almost as close. That would have ensured an amicable divorce.
United’s annus horribilis has been dominated by Ronaldo: the hat-tricks, the humps and the histrionics. Last season, they were better off with him. This season, they are better off without him.
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Ronaldo could still resurface in acts two and three of United’s season like Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth. “What does this team need?” Ten Hag asked rhetorically during a luncheon with journalists in Spain a fortnight ago. “We need goals.”
United do not score enough goals. They have scraped 20 goals in 14 Premier League games and have a goal difference of zero.
Ronaldo is the game’s greatest goalscorer and while he ceased to be a reliable goalscorer since August his presence still provided a fear factor that none of United’s attacking incumbents possess.
Just like in the 2019-20 campaign, United need a major mid-season addition to finish in the top four. Their situation is much more progressive than the first half of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first full season when United had eight wins at the halfway stage and January consisted of four defeats, including home humblings by Manchester City and Burnley.
United are cautious about any activity in next month’s transfer window. One source described it as “either taking someone’s problem off their hands or being had over a barrel.”
Sporting Lisbon derided United for overpaying for Bruno Fernandes in a deal rising to £67million but he is one of a handful of successful signings United have made in the last 15 years.
United overspent on every signing bar Malacia, particularly in Antony’s case. For an £85.51m investment, United need more from a fitful talent who failed to find Fernandes with a routine pass in the Burnley win. Antony’s jubilant celebrations at his Brazil squad inclusion, announced before United’s wins over Aston Villa and Fulham, suggested his recovery from injury was complete. He still missed United’s last two fixtures prior to the World Cup.
Ten Hag warned in July United were “light” in attack. Antony was still with Ajax and Ronaldo in Europe during the pre-season tour. United have promoted Alejandro Garnacho to the first-team squad yet there are caveats with all six forwards and they are effectively reduced to five with Jadon Sancho yet to report back at Carrington.
Marcus Rashford, totemic again for United, could not get a start with Ronaldo, Anthony Martial, Edinson Cavani and Mason Greenwood absent against Manchester City and Leicester last season. Few have benefited more markedly from Ten Hag’s appointment than Rashford, inevitable without a seasoned frontman at the tip of the attacking arrow.
Rashford, once painted in gold like Jill Masterson in Goldfinger for an advertisement, and Martial, a Golden Boy recipient, were United’s golden boys until Zlatan Ibrahimovic painted the town red. He was replaced by Romelu Lukaku. The next year, Edinson Cavani was parachuted in and barely 11 months later United celebrated Ronaldo’s homecoming. It is not a coincidence Rashford and Martial each broke the 20-goal barrier in 2019-20 – the one season they were certain starters.
Martial, 27, and Rashford, 25, will have more competition to manage either next month or in the summer but they are mature enough now to shoulder the burdens they were saddled with in those desperate days of Louis van Gaal’s second season.
Rashford was 18 and Martial 20 when they lined up in the victorious FA Cup semi-final and finals against Everton and Crystal Palace in 2016. Rashford has since lined up in a second FA Cup final and two Europa League finals. Martial’s last final start was in the 2017 League Cup win over Southampton.