The year was 2006. It was the Carling Cup final. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were taking on Paul Jewell’s Wigan Athletic. United had started with the front four of Wayne Rooney, Park Ji-Sung, Louis Saha and Cristiano Ronaldo, but some narratives were dominated by the fact that Ruud van Nistelrooy was left on the bench. Others weren’t surprised, as rumours over the past few months had been suggestive of the Dutchman’s keen desire to exit Old Trafford amidst keen interest from Real Madrid.
Despite the Dutchman staying on the bench,United won 4-0. While Rooney grabbed a brace, the young duo of Ronaldo and Saha got a goal each. Van Nistelrooy wasn’t required at any point of the game, and despite having a chance to bring him on Sir Alex chose instead to bring on his duo of new arrivals, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic, to give them a taste of winning silverware with their new side. It left Van Nistelrooy enraged, with a flashpoint of sorts arriving at the end as the Dutchman disrespected Fergie after the two youngsters were brought on.
This, in essence, was the encapsulation of the issues the striker had been encountering at Old Trafford. Before the previous season’s FA Cup final against Arsenal, Van Nistelrooy had asked to leave the club as he believed that younger players such as Ronaldo and Rooney wouldn’t win United a Champions League title. The soon to be Real Madrid player was dropped entirely from the final game of the season against Charlton after there had been several flare-ups during training.
Ronaldo, who had lost his father at that point, was picked on during training by Van Nistelrooy and the Dutchman asking ‘where’s your daddy’ hadn’t gone down well with the Portuguese, even though Van Nistelrooy was only refering to Carlos Queiroz and his special care for Ronaldo. Van Nistelrooy nearly came to blows with not just Ronaldo, but even with Roy Keane at one point. Someone who had built a special relationship with the club and the Old Trafford faithfuls through his goalscoring exploits, Van Nistelrooy squandered all of it within a matter of months. It is ironic that Rooney and Ronaldo did guide United to a Champions League title win just two years later, and have pretty much overshadowed Van Nistelrooy’s legacy, which certainly has a place of his own.
If the notion that life comes around in circles is anything to go by, something similar to the Wigan game was seen when United beat Tottenham 2-0 at Old Trafford through one of the best performances the team has put in the post Sir Alex era. After murmurs of discontent that have often reflected in his actions, Ronaldo refused to come on and walked off Old Trafford before the game, as a younger generation of players put in a performance to remember and while there was no silverware to win, showings like those have been rare from United over the last nine years. More than that, it was far from an individualistic performance. The aftermath also suggests that United’s nine-year-old habit of tying themselves to an individual’s whims and fancies might also be coming to an end.
Ronaldo being banished from the squad after his actions isn’t just a minor professionalism blip from a man who has been painted as the most reliable pro out there. It could even be a watershed moment in United’s modern history. This is the same club that handed a declining Wayne Rooney a massive contract back in the 2013/14 season despite him wanting to leave. It is the same club that similarly courted Paul Pogba despite his troubles till the very end, only to see him leave for free again. It is the same club where narratives are built around individual traits such as hunger and desire after a loss and a need to build a team around a certain someone is heavily emphasised. But the performance against Tottenham and Erik ten Hag’s actions against Ronaldo may be a concrete proof that maybe things are changing. Winds now might be blowing in the opposite direction.
The right direction.
If the whole picture is considered, stating that ‘no player is bigger than the club’ becomes a very limited context. Because in football in 2022, players can be bigger than clubs. Lionel Messi did become bigger than a flailing Barcelona for some years, only to see Catalan side become all about the Argentine and are now on the verge of playing two Europa League campaigns in consecutive seasons. Paris Saint-Germain have allowed that to happen for years, without achieving their ultimate goal of winning the Champions League. United themselves have allowed that to happen and we know where they are. Players can be bigger than clubs but it takes teams nowhere, unless they admit that they were wrong to take that approach.
Essentially, it is an approach which fails but teams do resort to it for brand value increase if the players are global stars. United have been a failing organisation and their approach on the pitch has reflected the reason across a host of managers, who have been left accomodating individual players into setups and this has led to the lack of cohesion. Managers have struggled to impose tactical setups, as evident from how Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s approach met a quick end after Ronaldo’s signing was made, as the Norwegian looked to accomodate a host of players into the side. United have signed too many players who may only work out if a system is designed for them, with key examples being Paul Pogba, Jadon Sancho and even Harry Maguire.
Unless a club is Real Madrid though, that approach hasn’t worked. Their Galacticos approach has been built on a solid foundation, backed by hiring man-managers and not tactics-first bosses. United have hopped from one approach to another, rendering themselves identityless in the process. With Ronaldo, they made another mistake and installed an aged global superstar, who is incredibly limited in his playing style, as the focus of their attack.
Van Nistelrooy, for a lack of better terminology, was quite the same. By 2005, the tactical evolutions in the Premier League sparked by Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger meant that structures and units mattered more than before. Sir Alex, ever the flexible, had to adapt - like he always has. Instead of having a one-dimensional striker who relied on a system to be build around to perform, he had to rely on a group of players doing numerous tasks while playing and younger minds allowed that. Van Nistelrooy’s behaviour was the tipping point.
It proved to be a vital milestone in Ronaldo’s career - similar to how the exclusions of Samuel Eto’o, Ronaldinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were vital for Lionel Messi’s development at Barcelona. Instead of having to pass to Van Nistelrooy after every move, Ronaldo could play freely - without extra weight of expectation. And United improved, emerging from a period where they went two seasons without winning the Premier League to win the title multiple times, winning the Champions League and reaching the final once again in 2009. Ronaldo did win the Ballon d’Or, but the situation right now isn’t about what he is or what he once was. It is about United, and they aren’t a bunch of individuals anymore under Ten Hag.
That is best reflected by the win over Spurs. Despite playing against a low-block, United tore Antonio Conte’s side to shreds from back to front. The coherent structure allowed for a very reliable pressing and it clicked at the right time, especially since the previous decade has been dominated by talk of how United have been poor at breaking down low defences. It was fitting that the performance came without Ronaldo, marking the dawn of a new era and demarcating a milestone that fans can look back at if Ten Hag does take United back to the top.
The side still has weaknesses, but Ten Hag has shown that he has enough pragmatism and adaptability infused in his idealistic approach to make it work. The approach in a lot of games has showed that and the Dutchman has made statements that be on the pitch or off the pitch, United will act like a unit and no one will defy that.