Why Erik ten Hag is the biggest winner from Cristiano Ronaldo leaving Manchester United

November 22, 2022

Man Utd have confirmed Cristiano Ronaldo has left the club with immediate effect after his bombshell interview last week.

From the moment Erik ten Hag settled into his seat for the flight back from London 10 days ago and watched the first clips of Cristiano Ronaldo’s explosive interview with Piers Morgan, he would have known this moment was coming.

If Ten Hag ‘s first question on hearing Ronaldo had done an unauthorised interview was ‘Piers who?’, the second would have been ‘how do we put an end to this once and for all?’.

Too much of Ten Hag’s time at Manchester Unitedso far has involved dealing with Ronaldo. The 37-year-old has dominated every press conference, for good or, mostly, bad, and his shadow has loomed large over everything the club’s latest manager has tried to do.

From his camp making it clear he wanted to leave Old Trafford on the eve of Ten Hag’s first day of pre-season training, to his refusal to come on as a substitute against Tottenham, to this extraordinary interview, Ronaldo has been nothing but problematic to his new manager.

But this was always going to be the final straw. Sources have confirmed that Ten Hag was heavily involved in the decision to end Ronaldo’s time at the club. He couldn’t allow him to destroy the togetherness he has fostered in the dressing room.

There was a time when his goalscoring record was so stunning that you could tolerate the ego and the selfishness, but three goals this season are hardly worthy of the special treatment the Portugal forward has constantly demanded. Speaking to Morgan, he said he was too good to play three minutes against Spurs, but the reality is he’s barely been too good for anybody this term.

United have looked a better team without the static, slowing Ronaldo up front this season and he has found that difficult to deal with. You don’t reach the level that Ronaldo has reached without unshakeable belief in your ability, but when everyone else’s faith in you has waned, it’s difficult to come to terms with. The evidence of that was broadcast across Talk TV last Wednesday and Thursday night.

Ten Hag has seen that his team are better with a more fluid front line, that his principles are more closely aligned with Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford as the focal point for his attack. When United were thrashed 4-0 by Brentford in his second game in charge, the Dutchman knew he had to throw off the kid gloves. It was time to lay down the law to his side and, in a way, that seismic defeat gave him a clean slate. It was the beginning of the end for Ronaldo.

The problem for Ten Hag has been attempting to build a new team with the presence of one of football’s biggest modern superstars on his shoulder. Throughout this season the feeling has persisted that they simply don’t see eye to eye, a suspicion emphatically confirmed last week.

Ten Hag handled Ronaldo’s petulant walkout against Tottenham well, but in retrospect maybe that should have been the end. Certainly handing him the captaincy 18 days later looks like a mistake in hindsight.

But now, Ronaldo is to be somebody else’s problem. Ten Hag began last summer wanting to work with Ronaldo but by the time the transfer window closed he would have been happy to let him leave. The problem was that, for all the player’s bravado last week, the only offer to the club came from Saudi Arabia.

Even before Ronaldo took the nuclear option there was a feeling that this most delicate of truces couldn’t be sustained beyond January, especially if Martial was back fit and ready to be involved every week by then.

In a way, as unedifying and unnecessary as Ronaldo’s interview was, it has helped Ten Hag. He is the biggest winner here. United have had their relationship with one of their greatest-ever players irredeemably sullied and Ronaldo still has to prove to other clubs he is worth taking a punt on.

For Ten Hag, this is day zero. The progress he has made at Carrington and at Old Trafford has been in spite of Ronaldo. Now, with the circus over, he can have greater control over that dressing room, fostering a style of play that everyone in the squad is on board with. He has got rid of a negative presence that still had a significant influence on some players, especially the younger members of the dressing room.

Ronaldo will have known what he was doing the moment he invited Morgan into his home and allowed the interview to go ahead. Ten Hag has constantly emphasised the value of team spirit and unity this season and his history at Ajax is of a strong character when any players try and break that. Even someone with Ronaldo’s stature couldn’t survive.

After news of the interview had broken last week, Ten Hag logged on to a high-level meeting at United with Joel Glazer, Richard Arnold and John Murtough from Nyon, where he was attending a UEFA summit for coaches. There’s nothing in the manuals for dealing with this kind of scenario, but the 52-year-old has come out of it well.

There was clear alignment between all four that there could be no way back for Ronaldo after his interview. The fact he will walk away from the club without receiving another penny is a sign United have handled the exit well, saving themselves £16million in the process.

In time, perhaps the history of Ronaldo and United will once again focus on the goals and the glory, the memorable moments from his first spell especially, and the sight of a player as exhilarating as the No. 7 doing his stuff in the red of United. But for now, there is just a sense of sadness about the way it has ended.

For all the PR, for all the fanfare, for all the romantic nostalgia about Ronaldo coming home, the decision to re-sign him last summer always looked like a risk. So it has proved. Maybe United and Ronaldo should have stuck to the mantra to never go back.

Now, at least, Ten Hag can look forward.