Cleaning Manchester United’s transfer mess starts with Cristiano Ronaldo exit; the next steps will be tougher

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At last Manchester United appear to be seeing the reality of their situation. A sweeping of the decks at Old Trafford might be the only way to eventually restore some star power to this fading icon and that starts with the A-lister who shone brightest the last time this club were at the top of the European game.

Manchester United sources Monday night were publicly insistent that Cristiano Ronaldo is not for sale and is expected to see out the final year of his contract. In particular, they insisted that reports United would look to terminate that deal were incorrect. By Tuesday morning, that stance has gotten somewhat softer and the five-time Ballon d’Or winner could indeed be allowed to leave.

The question, of course, is where to? Of the possible Champions League contenders that he wants to join, only Chelsea took a long look at him and they have concluded otherwise. Atletico Madrid’s fans are campaigning against his signature while Barcelona president Joan Laporta did not deny that his club had been offered (and rejected) the chance to sign the 37-year-old before picking the younger model in Robert Lewandowski and then activating the fourth “lever.”

Indeed, CBS Sports understands that the only offers currently on the table for Ronaldo come from Saudi Arabia, where two leading clubs have made plain their willingness to take the Portugal international on increased wages despite his own reticence. Ronaldo, the current Champions League record scorer, feels he has unfinished business in that competition and will want to be playing at the highest level before this winter’s World Cup in Qatar. One of the two Saudi clubs interested in his services has told CBS Sports that their offer would still be on the table for Ronaldo in January, but that may be too late for Erik ten Hag’s new start.

Ronaldo could be well be unshiftable in the closing days of the transfer window. The worry for United ought to be how many others in their squad are of the same status.

It was instructive to see former Manchester United defender Gary Neville apply RAG status to the club’s financial business in the years since their guiding light, Sir Alex Ferguson, retired. Of 33 signings made over the past nine years, two got the green light from the pundit, seven were amber and the rest were the sort of unqualified disappointments that constituted red status. To which one had two immediate reactions. First of all, surely something deeper than red is required? After all, Daley Blind wasn’t great but he was hardly an Alexis Sanchez-style blow up your wage bill, rob minutes from talented youngsters and end up paying his wages just for him to go away disaster.

Then when your eyes moved from the mass of inadequate recruitment to the supposed successes, you cannot help but feel the bar might be too low. Zlatan Ibrahimovic gave United a great first season but didn’t even make it to the end of a deeply disappointing second while Bruno Fernandes’ form has fallen off a cliff since Ronaldo, implausibly an amber on Neville’s list, arrived.

Many of these players that Neville was so unimpressed by make up the rump of ten Hag’s squad now. There are plenty, the Phil Joneses, Eric Baillys and even Anthony Martials (at least until his preseason revival) who seem bound to see out their contract until the bitter end, but also foundational pieces of the squad that finished sixth. United are swimming in center backs who are above the aforementioned two in the depth chart, but who would throw a stack of money at them to pay the sizable wages of Victor Lindelof or Raphael Varane? 

A year ago, the suggestion that United might struggle to find a buyer for Fernandes would have been laughed out of the conversation. Why would they want to, for starters? But then the 27-year-old is redolent of a playing squad that comes to Old Trafford for atrophy rather than silverware. Fred might be in the same boat. Both show often enough that club scouts were not wrong to see talent in them. However, without a defined tactical structure to sit within, Fernandes in particular seems to indulge his worst tendencies. Last season, the Portugal international ranked third for intercepted passes, sixth for those that went out of bounds (only Joao Cancelo beat him in both categories, but the Manchester City full back also completed more than 1,000 more than his compatriot’s 1,524). 

The most convincing case for a Fernandes sale — not something his club have shown any indication of considering — is that managers might still have time to deprogram his Unitedness before it is too late. One might make the same case for the faltering Marcus Rashford, who was linked with Paris Saint-Germain earlier this month. It is fair to say that revelations of dialogue between his agent and the Ligue 1 champions did not emanate from the Parc des Princes.  It would appear that ten Hag is too late to do the same where David de Gea is concerned. He simply cannot pass the football to the standard required by most modern clubs.

Ederson, Alisson and even Aaron Ramsdale have enhanced their side’s attacking capabilities with searing passes that don’t just keep possession at their teammate’s feet, but create opportunities in the blink of an eye. Where those goalkeepers speed the game, De Gea slows it down. What passes he has made so far this season have been either knocking the ball short to a center back or punting the ball aimlessly up the field. It took 180 minutes for him to successfully complete a pass into the opposition half, a goal kick thumped in the direction of Anthony Elanga when United were 4-0 down at Brentford.

Passes made by De Gea and Ramsdale this season. Note how frequently Ramsdale is able to pick out team mates high up the pitch, quickly moving Arsenal into attacking positions

Ten Hag has said — in reference to his team as a whole — that he is confident they can adapt to his demands because they did so in preseason. Speaking after his horror show at the Gtec Community Stadium, De Gea offered a clear explanation for why he will find things more difficult. “It’s too easy to play in preseason when you play for nothing,” he said. “When you play in the games that matters is when you need bravery and to be more consistent and to be proper players. That wasn’t the case today. We need to stick together and we have a lot to learn under a new manager.”

Liverpool didn’t exactly gameplan for De Gea when they were losing 4-0 in Bangkok. Brentford did with Christian Norgaard revealing after the match they had gone man-to-man from goal kicks; in theory, United should have had a spare player in De Gea. The reality is he was as effective a means of the hosts scoring goals as getting Ivan Toney isolated against Lisandro Martinez. Jurgen Klopp will surely look to repeat the trick.

What can United do about it bar hope De Gea gets better with the ball at his feet? The overlap in a Venn diagram of “clubs who can match £375,000-a-week salaries” and “clubs who will tolerate a goalkeeper who cannot pass progressively” is miniscule. Look down the squad list at Old Trafford and there are more players like the Spaniard than unlike him — those who have been rather left behind by the modern game, at least in part because of the antiquated football operations at the club, and who would curry next to no suitors.

It is why United are instead forced to cash in on talented youngsters such as James Garner, the £15 million they hope to get for him is a fair sight more than they could get for plenty of the established internationals in their team. The cash reserves are not as bountiful as they once were at Old Trafford; to adapt a Josh Kroenke phrase, this is a team with a Champions League wage bill on a Europa League budget.

Arsenal, last season’s early crisis club, at least offer some sense of how United can get out of this mess and it takes them back to the Ronaldo case. North London was not short of similar players; aging stars whose output didn’t match their salary and whose conduct did not always impress Mikel Arteta. Arsenal director Edu Gaspar simply paid them to go away. 

“Try to avoid one more year with the problem inside, in the dressing room, expensive, not performing,” the Brazilian technical director said last month. “Clean, take it out. Even, I’m sorry, if you have to pay. To leave is better. Because that guy is sometimes also blocking someone.

“I know it hurts, I know it’s strange when I go to the board and say, ‘Sometimes it’s better to pay a player to leave than maintain them.’ But I consider it an investment. Sometimes people say, ‘It’s expensive.’ I say, ‘No, it’s investment.’ But someone will pay if you sell? No, guys — if the player is above 26, 27 and not performing, big salary, no chance.”

It is not an approach without its pitfalls. Right now Arsenal want a fee for Hector Bellerin, but why would Real Betis pay it when history suggests that the Gunners are more likely to rip up his deal than keep him around for the final year of his contract. And, of course, no player will terminate their contract unless they know there is another club waiting for them. The reality, though, is that the richest Premier League clubs have few other options in the current financial climate across the rest of the game.

That same reality that Arsenal faced in January 2021 when they began paying players to play elsewhere now looms large for United. They might have accepted that they don’t want their players, but the following realization might be even tougher for them. No one else wants them either.

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