Cristiano Ronaldo is one of five headaches for Erik ten Hag

·7-min read
NIGEL RODDIS/AFP via Getty Images - Cristiano Ronaldo is the biggest of Erik ten Hag’s mounting Manchester United headaches
NIGEL RODDIS/AFP via Getty Images - Cristiano Ronaldo is the biggest of Erik ten Hag’s mounting Manchester United headaches

Erik ten Hag has wasted little time showing Manchester United’s players who is boss as he attempts to bring an end to the chaos on and off the pitch at Old Trafford but the problems are stacking up for the manager ahead of Sunday’s opening Premier League game against Brighton.

How do you solve a problem like Ronaldo?

United head into the new season with their manager and star player on a potential collision course. Any hope that the soap opera surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo might quieten ahead of United’s opening Premier League game against Brighton at Old Trafford on Sunday has been shattered by the events of recent days. As if Ronaldo’s desire to quit Old Trafford and his absence from their entire pre-season tour of Thailand and Australia for family reasons was not problem enough, the wantaway striker has now found himself publicly scolded by Ten Hag for the “unacceptable” decision to leave Sunday’s friendly at home to Rayo Vallecano before the game had finished.

Ronaldo was not the only player to be reprimanded for making an early exit against Rayo but how the five-time World Player of the Year reacts to having his ego pricked in such fashion will be interesting, especially as the doors close on a potential move away before the close of the transfer window at the end of the month. By making an example of Ronaldo, Ten Hag has shown he is unafraid to tackle the dressing room’s most high profile player and biggest earner head on and will not make exceptions in his bid to instill discipline, raise standards and unite what was a splintered dressing room last season.

But that does not mean he has made an already difficult situation any easier to manage and you only needed to witness the awkward touchline exchange between Ronaldo and Ten Hag during a first half drinks break against Rayo to glimpse the tensions. Unsettled star players are a manager’s worst nightmare and the reality is they don’t come much bigger than Ronaldo, whose much trumpeted return to Old Trafford 12 months is turning into a nightmare for both player and club. United have maintained Ronaldo - who was understood to be on a commercial shoot on Wednesday - is not for sale and going nowhere but at what cost? 

There could be further trouble to come with Ronaldo likely to have to contend with a place on the substitutes’ bench for the opening weeks of the campaign after only reporting back last Tuesday and it is still unclear how he will fit in Ten Hag’s plans to play a sustained pressing game.

Shades of Cesc Fabregas in Frenkie de Jong saga

Fourteen weeks have passed now since it became public that United were in discussions with Barcelona about signing Frenkie de Jong and fans are clinging to the hope that the torturous pursuit of the Netherlands midfielder does not turn into a repeat of the Cesc Fabregas saga from 2013 - or worse and Chelsea steal him from under their noses.

Like Ten Hag now with De Jong, David Moyes had made Fabregas his priority transfer target in his first summer in charge at Old Trafford only to be left facing a frantic scramble for an alternative in the final three weeks of the window after the Spain midfielder, for whom United had two bids rebuffed, opted to stay at Barcelona. Moyes ended up having to settle for an eleventh hour deal for Marouane Fellaini after desperate moves for Daniele De Rossi and Ander Herrera also came to nothing. The situation is slightly different this time given that United have actually agreed a £72 million fee with Barcelona for De Jong. But the midfielder has given little indication that he wants to leave the Nou Camp and if United are forced to look elsewhere late in the window for the holding midfielder Ten Hag craves then they risk being held to ransom or forced to compromise.

manchester united preseason guide ronaldo ten hag transfers news - GETTY IMAGES
manchester united preseason guide ronaldo ten hag transfers news - GETTY IMAGES

United insist that they would not have got this far down the line if they did not believe De Jong was willing to come but the clock is ticking and there is also now the added threat of Chelsea muscling in. Todd Boehly, Chelsea’s new co-owner, recently had dinner with Barcelona president Joan Laporta in Barcelona and, if De Jong is forced out of the Nou Camp, it has long been felt he would prefer to join a club in the Champions League, something Chelsea can offer that United cannot. It has also been reported De Jong would prefer to live in London than Manchester if push came to shove. Whatever materialises, a deal cannot happen until there is some form of resolution with regards to the £17m De Jong is owed by Barcelona in wages he agreed to defer during the pandemic.

Where are the attacking reinforcements?

The De Jong saga is having a knock-on effect on United’s other transfer business, not least Ten Hag’s desire to strengthen his attack. The RB Salzburg and Slovenia striker Benjamin Sesko is one target of interest but United have so far been put off by his £50m plus price tag during talks and ideally want a No. 6 midfielder in the building first. Anthony Martial, who is expected to lead the line as centre-forward at Ronaldo’s expense against Brighton, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford have enjoyed encouraging pre-seasons.

But, with Ronaldo short of match fitness and wanting out and the inexperienced Anthony Elanga and unproven, lightweight Amad Diallo the only other fallback options now Edinson Cavani and Jesse Lingard have left and Mason Greenwood is still unavailable, United are one injury away from a serious headache in attack. United have already backed away from Antony over Ajax’s valuation of the Brazil forward.

Sales needed to swell transfer kitty

Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata, Cavani and Lingard have left as free agents and Dean Henderson has joined Nottingham Forest on loan, all of which has cleared considerable space on the wage bill. But the £10m Fulham paid for midfielder Andreas Pereira is the only money United have recouped in sales so far and it remains to be seen how much cash the club can realistically generate from a planned defensive clear-out of the deadwood over the coming weeks.

United - who currently have seven senior centre-backs on their books - are prepared to listen to offers for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Eric Bailly, Alex Telles, Phil Jones, Brandon Williams and Axel Tuanzebe but a combination of high wages, poor form or troubled injury records are obstacles to extracting healthy transfer fees from suitors. Telles will undergo a medical with Sevilla on Thursday ahead of a season-long loan move although the deal does not include an option to buy and a loan, at best, seems the most likely scenario where Wan-Bissaka is concerned three years after the right back’s eye-watering £50m move from Crystal Palace.

manchester united preseason guide ronaldo ten hag transfers news - GETTY IMAGES
manchester united preseason guide ronaldo ten hag transfers news - GETTY IMAGES

Sevilla are also thought to be interested in Bailly, who has also attracted interest from Roma, with the Ivory Coast centre-half and Williams appearing to be United’s best chance of decent fees.

More anti-Glazer protests planned

As if Ten Hag did not have enough distractions to cope with, United’s game against Brighton will come amid a backdrop of more protests against the Glazer’s “unfit” ownership of the club. Pleas from the United chief executive Richard Arnold for fans to direct all their energy into supporting Ten Hag seem set to fall on deaf ears with The 1958 group vowing to stage another demonstration on Sunday that they hope will lead to the entrances to the club’s Megastore and directors’ tunnel at Old Trafford being temporarily closed off.

Probable Man Utd XI v Brighton: David De Gea; Diogo Dalot, Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof, Luke Shaw; Scott McTominay, Fred, Bruno Fernandes; Jadon Sancho, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford.