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Cristiano Ronaldo’s early exit adds to uncertainty over his Manchester United future

Six games, three victories, two draws, a defeat and one big distraction. Manchester United’s 2022 pre-season is complete, but uncertainty over the future of Cristiano Ronaldo continues to cloud Erik ten Hag’s first summer at Old Trafford.

Ronaldo missed United’s tour last month after being granted leave for “personal reasons” and, in his first game under Ten Hag yesterday, he was substituted at half-time and was pictured leaving the ground before the game had finished.

The 37-year-old reiterated his desire to leave United during meetings at the club’s Carrington training base last week and Jorge Mendes is working to establish exit routes from Old Trafford on behalf of his client.

United executives continue to insist he is not for sale, but Ronaldo is believed to want to spend the coming season at a Champions League club so he can cement his scoring record in the competition.

It makes for an uneasy backdrop to a summer in which Ten Hag has worked positively to school his new team in how he wants to play.

Against Rayo Vallecano on Sunday, United’s second game in as many days after a 1-0 defeat by Atletico Madrid on Saturday, Ronaldo made his first appearance of Ten Hag’s reign. He received both the loudest cheers and boos from supporters prior to kick-off, before putting in an adequate first-half performance.

Ronaldo remains United’s most obvious goalscoring threat — he shot the most clear-cut chance of the opening 45 off target — but he looks a number of weeks away from Premier League match sharpness.

He only returned to United on Tuesday, when he underwent medical testing, including some work on the grass, having previously been training at Portugal’s Lisbon training base.

That was the first Ten Hag had talked with Ronaldo since the forward had communicated his desire to leave, but United’s manager has repeatedly spoken of his importance to the team. The pair could be seen in a discussion during a break in the game on Sunday and, at half-time, he was replaced by Amad Diallo, who scored United’s goal in the 1-1 draw.

No reason was given for his replacement or his early departure, nor were the club able to confirm if he had permission to leave. Ten Hag spoke afterwards only to MUTV, who did not ask about Ronaldo.

Ronaldo had billed his appearance in advance, posting that “Sunday, the king plays” and went to both ends of the ground to take applause after emerging from the tunnel.

In the 45 minutes he did play, Ronaldo spent most of his time dropping into deeper areas to get more touches of the ball. Ronaldo could be an important fixed point in Ten Hag’s attack next season, but often plays outside the structure the new United manager desires.

Two minutes into the game against Rayo Vallecano, young forward Alejandro Garnacho broke forward from the left and cut inside towards the penalty area. A different striker might have responded to Garnacho’s dribble by running into the box themselves, but Ronaldo held his position, before hopping back and gesturing for the ball. The 18-year-old Garnacho responded by forcing a difficult pass to his United team-mate, a play that deferred responsibility and made clear the hierarchy of power in United’s attack.

Ronaldo is the most experienced goalscorer in United’s squad, but if he is to continue scoring goals at a rate he desires, he will have to play more in line with Ten Hag’s tactical structure.

His performance was in contrast to that of former United forward Radamel Falcao. The 36-year-old, with a history of knee injuries that have left him several notches off his physical and playing prime, was a largely static focal point that Rayo Vallecano’s wide players used as reference. Falcao sought to occupy the final line of United’s defence, foraging for whatever space he could find between centre-backs Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane.

In 2022, Ronaldo appears more a footballing concept than player. There is a separation between the character Ronaldo portrays and the position he currently holds within the club. A difficult situation looks no closer to being resolved with the days counting down to United’s opening Premier League game against Brighton on Sunday.

It is the one big negative that has emerged from Ten Hag’s first summer, but here’s what else arose from the weekend double-header.

Eriksen and Martinez will be vital to United’s possession play this season

Alex Telles has had a peculiar pre-season, moonlighting at left-sided centre-back and defensive midfielder during United’s games in Australia. Restored to left-back against Rayo, it appears Ten Hag has used Telles as a tool to get United acclimatised before Lisandro Martinez’s arrival in the back four. Argentinian Martinez was a standout performer against Rayo on Sunday, a progressive passer option at left centre-back as United continue their work in progress, building from the back. He looks set to partner Harry Maguire for the majority of this season.

Ahead of Martinez was Christian Eriksen, one of three players to feature against both Atletico Madrid and Rayo (along with James Garner and Donny van de Beek). On Sunday, Ten Hag wanted the central midfielder closer to the ball and drop deeper to help United pass from the edge of their penalty box.

Eriksen was listed as the No 10 playmaker in a 4-2-3-1 in MUTV’s tactical view prior to kick-off, but he was often the man dropping to help in the build-up. Eriksen and Martinez’s comfort in possession gave a proper platform for United’s other midfielders. Garner — who was used as a No 6 style defensive midfielder — had a constant outlet in Eriksen. Van de Beek seemed particularly encouraged by Martinez and Eriksen’s passes, attempting more ambitious runs forward.

Eriksen featured in both games at the weekend (Photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Eriksen’s future is a little harder to parse: his ability to receive the ball on the half-turn allows United to play quickly if he is utilised in the midfield pivot, and he also maintains the same sharp passing range and vision that made him an outstanding attacking midfielder for Tottenham Hotspur.

The Dane will be Ten Hag’s midfield multi-tool in 2022-23. He can be paired with Fred in the pivot of a 4-2-3-1, complementing Bruno Fernandes’ passing styles. Or he can play as the playmaking 10 and allow United to attack differently.

Tyrell Malacia has a strong case for starting at left-back

Luke Shaw missed United’s double-header due to illness. The Englishman is nominally United’s starting left-back, but newcomer Tyrell Malacia has made a strong case to step into the position. Against Atletico, he again displayed a pleasing intensity in both his attacking and defensive duties.

The early sections of Saturday’s game saw the 22-year-old wriggle his way out of the attention of two opposition players before starting a United counter-attack. Malacia’s dribbling skills and positional play make him a valued asset to Ten Hag’s side.

United are in need of attacking reinforcements

Jadon Sancho was another player who missed United’s final two pre-season games through illness. It was his absence that was most keenly felt.

United’s best performances this tour have seen them play similarly to Ten Hag’s Ajax side of 2018-19, overloading one flank through settled possession play before quickly switching the ball to attack the other side. Sancho’s presence on the right is vital to this: his dynamic runs and creative passing give United both a means to attack down the right and an authoritative outlet for those crossfield balls after overloading the left. Sancho also works as United’s secondary on-ball creator, easing the burden on Fernandes.

Sancho is vital to how United play under Ten Hag (Photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Against Atletico on Saturday, Anthony Elanga had a difficult time on the right. The young Swede’s standout skill comes from his willingness to run in behind defences, rather than what he can do with the ball at his feet, leaving United one-dimensional going forward and unable to stretch the pitch as they would with Sancho. On Sunday, Tahith Chong found himself being tutored by both Ten Hag and Ronaldo on how he could better affect things against Rayo. The 22-year-old looks better suited to a loan or permanent move away from United rather than serve as a third or fourth option on the right.

After free-scoring performances against Liverpool and Crystal Palace on tour, reality has crept in.

“You have to take the benefit if you create chances and I think we created many chances, enough to produce at least one goal,” said Ten Hag following the 1-0 defeat to Atletico on Saturday.

“But we didn’t do, and from the last chances they create they score one. So, at that point, I am not satisfied, and I have told the team it is not acceptable. You have to be sharp in the box, both sides.”

Ten Hag’s description of Benni McCarthy’s arrival to United’s coaching team was illuminating, calling him someone who will provide a “new voice” for the squad’s attackers, of which he included full-backs and central midfielders. The United manager wishes his side to attack in a “dynamic” manner, but this team are light on numbers at centre-forward (even if Ronaldo stays) and light on quality at right-wing behind Sancho. Some solutions can slowly be found via the training ground. Others are best solved via the transfer market.

United remain a work in progress

This pre-season has seen United press from the front, counter-press when they lose the ball and play with inverted full-backs. There are still weaknesses to United’s play (they will need to learn how to retreat compactly after losing the ball quicker, or tactically foul to buy extra time), but there has been promise.

“I think we (have had) a good pre-season,” said Ten Hag at full-time on Sunday. “We make good progress. We are ready for the season. I know there is still room for improvement. We have to improve and that is also a process that continues during the season. But, for next week, it’s about the result as well.”

United will play Brighton, Brentford, Liverpool and Southampton in August. Two of those sides scored (at least) four goals against United last season. After their second 1-1 draw against them last season, Ralph Hasenhuttl said it was no secret that United’s “reverse gear” was not the best.

United were at their lowest ebb in 2021-22, and it did not take the most remarkable of sides to keep them at bay. Ten Hag has already improved a number of things this summer, but if United are to be remarkable in 2022-23, he’ll have his work cut out.

A promising pre-season tour has given way to a dose of reality.

Ten Hag’s true challenge begins next week.

(Top image: Getty Images)

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