Since the beginning of this season, there’s been an opinion shared by a certain element of Manchester United fans that the team performs better when Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t play. It is – or was – a controversial opinion because of Ronaldo’s obvious talent, but there’s some evidence to support the idea. Results for Erik Ten Hag’s team this season have been better when Ronaldo didn’t start games than when he did. In fact, the temperamental 37-year-old’s final game for the Red Devils, a 3-1 defeat away at Aston Villa in Unai Emery’s first game in charge of the Midlands club, was emblematic of “the Ronaldo problem” that these fans spoke of. Ronaldo was captain for the game but had almost no effect on it, while the team didn’t seem to know how to play around him.
The fans who believed that their club would be better without Ronaldo are about to get their chance to prove it. Ronaldo is gone, and he isn’t coming back. The relationship between Manchester United and Cristiano Ronaldo broke down to the point where it became unsustainable, and he was allowed to end his contract early after giving an explosive interview to Piers Morgan on British television. Some Manchester United fans might be glad to be shot of Ronaldo. It’s possible that some of the players in the dressing room and members of the board might be equally happy to see him go. For Manchester United, though, there’s a problem. With Ronaldo gone, and the team deprived of the services of the disgraced Mason Greenwood, they’re lacking in options in attack.
A light forward line
The undisputed leader of Manchester United’s attack – such as it exists at the moment – is Marcus Rashford. With Ronaldo gone, Rashford has to play so long as he’s fit. There have been question marks over the player’s form, but he’s now free of Ronaldo’s shadow and showing signs that he’s back to his best on international duty for England at the World Cup. A fit, firing-on-all-cylinders Rashford is a major asset for the club, but he couldn’t and shouldn’t be expected to lead the line on his own. If he gets injured, United are in real trouble.
The number two striker at Old Trafford is probably Anthony Martial, who’s back with Manchester United this season after an unsuccessful loan spell with Sevilla in Spain. Martial’s talent is undeniable, but so is his inconsistency. When he’s at his best, he can be unstoppable, but when he’s at his worst, he’s a passenger. He’s also highly injury-prone. Martial cannot be relied on to be available, so that leaves United looking deeper into their reserves for solutions. There aren’t many good ones. Antony and Jadon Sancho are forwards, but they’re not strikers. Alejandro Garnacho might turn out to be a great talent for Manchester United, but it’s too early in his career to put pressure on him. Neither Shola Shoretire nor Anthony Elanga look like they’re good enough for the Premier League. That means the club is going to have to buy – but there could be good news on that front.
Cristiano Ronaldo might have arrived at Old Trafford for a nominal fee a little over a year ago, but his salary was anything but nominal. Some sources say he was paid £500,000 per week. That’s a colossal amount of money – and it’s money that the club no longer has to pay because Ronaldo agreed to waive the sum that was due to him over the remaining months of his contract. Manchester United probably planned to buy a striker during the summer anyway, but they can now move those plans forward to January – and they may have found the ideal candidate already in the shape of PSV Eindhoven and Netherlands striker Cody Gakpo.
The right fit?
Gakpo ticks a lot of the right boxes for Manchester United. At 23, he’s young enough to grow as part of the team. As a Dutchman, Erik Ten Hag will have no issue communicating with him. The fact that he’s played for PSV Eindhoven means that Ten Hag is already familiar with him from the time he spent coaching Ajax, so he knows what he’s getting. Gakpo’s goalscoring record for PSV isn’t anything to write home about, but he averages one every two games at the international level, and his goal-to-game ratio in the Dutch league thus far this season has been far higher than in previous seasons. There are signs that he’s growing, maturing and improving – and at six feet and four inches tall, he’s perfectly suited to the physicality of the English Premier League.
Cody Gakpo looks like a common-sense, nailed-on signing for Manchester United to make – and that might be precisely why the club doesn’t end up sealing the deal. The Glazers have put the club up for sale, but for the time being, they’re still in charge and still handling transfers. For the past decade, Manchester United’s transfer business has been abysmal. A combined £83m was spent on Donny van de Beek, Alex Telles, Facundo Pellistri and Amad Diallo in 2020. Telles and van de Beek have been unable to break into the first team. Diallo and Pellistri have barely seen the pitch. All too often, United have behaved like a casino player on a losing streak, throwing good money after bad money and hoping their luck will change. That’s a little ironic, as the only Premier League football team with a slots game listed on a casino sister site index is the club’s great rival, Liverpool, but the comparison is valid. If United’s board really was playing casino games, you get the feeling the owners of the casino would have stepped in and told them that they’d had enough a long time ago. Recent history tells us that they don’t do deals when they should, but they do plenty when they shouldn’t.
This is a new era at United. There’s a new manager, Ronaldo is gone, and the club is up for sale. They need a striker, and Gakpo is said to be available at a good price. If Manchester United are serious about moving forward, this is the purchase they need to make. We’ll see if it happens when the transfer window opens in January.