Tue. Dec 7th, 2021

Thi had come to celebrate Cristiano Ronaldo and they got what they had come for: not one but two opportunities to shout “And!” as he celebrated goals with the characteristic spread of his arms and groin pressure, a sort of macho version of Lionel Blair indicating that he was imitating the title of a song. Everything else could currently take the back seat: the king has returned.

The announcement of Ronaldo’s name when the teams were read out around noon. 14.25, was greeted by a large roar. When he ran out to warm up and smartly maximized his exposure by placing himself behind Donny van de Beek, a player with translucent looks and reputation, there was another visceral cheer. He responded with practiced randomness, acknowledging the two long sides of the ground with applause and a raised thumb. Before kick-off, Ronaldo was finally out of the tunnel, so the roar had grown and grown before appearing behind Paul Pogba.

The noise at kick-off was extraordinary, far higher than for any league match at Old Trafford in recent times, destined for a routine match against lower midfield resistance. Social media engagements were presumably through the roof. Even executive chairman Avram Glazer, after a two-year hiatus, showed up to see it.

Yet there is a strangeness to this, a strange sense of gratitude that Ronaldo, after apparently being quite willing to join Manchester City, decided to return. A confident club may not have such a need to recall past glories.

In the directors’ box, Ed Woodward no doubt looked out to congratulate himself on a job well done. Any question as to why United have gone eight seasons without a league title despite spending half a billion pounds net over the last five years could be postponed for a few more months, deflected by the same nostalgic wishful thinking that dilutes criticism by Ole Gunnar Solskjær, even though he is the longest-serving United manager for not winning a trophy since Dave Sexton.

This was a day without a doubt. This was a day of worship. Ronaldo strutted among his people and they responded with passionate intensity. This is modern fandom; tribal, flashing, unable to treat their heroes with anything but awe.

Fans celebrate after Cristiano Ronaldo scored his, and Manchester United's second goal of the match.
Fans celebrate after Cristiano Ronaldo scored his, and Manchester United’s second goal of the match. Photo: Tom Jenkins / The Guardian

Aside from a banner drawn behind a plane, there were no troublesome questions here about exactly what happened that night in Las Vegas 12 years ago, though Ronaldo denies all the charges.

There was also no disagreement about the wisdom of paying a 36-year-old £ 500,000 a week when there was apparently no money available to bolster a midfielder who looks more and more shabby for glitz elsewhere in the squad. Can this hamper the development of Mason Greenwood? Can Ronaldo’s presence hinder the creativity of Bruno Fernandes, who has been so important to United recently but for whom there has been no evidence that he can play for Portugal? Can his reluctance to press reveal the tired midfield towards better sides?

Ronaldo was good. Or rather, he was good at the things he is good at. He was aware of the possibility when Freddie Woodman, confused by a slight deflection, wasted Greenwood’s shots in injury time in the first half. There was a majesty in the way he braked and then swept by Isaac Hayden before slamming his second through Woodman’s legs. He remains the top scorer of the highest caliber.

But United’s problem last season was not scoring goals. They were the second highest scorers in the Premier League and somehow went out of the Champions League despite getting 15 in the group. Their problem was clumsy in midfield, the lack of coherence that meant they could be thwarted by solid, if unspectacular teams – Crystal Palace, West Brom, Sheffield United, Villarreal …

There were alarming signs in the first half that Ronaldo could exacerbate that problem. It’s early days and relationships can develop, but when, for example, he broke out in the left of the field after 20 minutes and slammed a shot into the side netting from a narrow angle, there was no one in the middle for a post: Greenwood, Jadon Sancho and Fernandes essentially stood back and watched.

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And if Ronaldo’s arrival and the need to accommodate the stars mean that Pogba plays more games in midfield, United are extremely vulnerable to counterattacks. Newcastle equalized through an outburst and a more complex side could easily have had a few more.

But this was not a day of worries. It was a day to revel in thoughts of past glories, and United fans are hoping, maybe even believing, glories in the future. However, it is difficult to see how Ronaldo solves the most pressing concern, the element on the side that has prevented United from mounting a title challenge: the organization of the midfield.

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