It was not hard to interpret how Cristiano Ronaldo was feeling at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Each time the camera kept cutting to the Portugal striker marooned among the other non-playing substitutes on Manchester United’s bench, it felt like a window into his soul. Every Manchester City goal a staging post for the inner despair of the five-time World Player of the Year.
For a while, he was caught gazing wistfully into the distance but, as defeat turned into demolition and Ronaldo began to bury his head in his hands, it was easy to imagine him wondering how a storied career had come to this. In the Sky Sports studio, Roy Keane appeared to give a voice to those thoughts. The Irishman has clearly been in dialogue with his former team-mate and took it upon himself to fight Ronaldo’s corner with a candour bordering on rage. “I think United have shown nothing but disrespect to Ronaldo,” the club’s former captain fumed.
Erik ten Hag explained afterwards that he had opted against introducing Ronaldo “out of respect for his big career”, which made about as much sense as the manager’s decision not to change anything during a first half in which City blew holes in United’s gameplan - whatever that was - and scored at will.
Ten Hag’s comments pointed to Ronaldo being treated as special, in which case you have to wonder what value the Dutchman and the club see in keeping the greatest goalscorer in the history of the men’s game and highest paid player in the Premier League if not to play him.
Ronaldo, it must be said, is understood to have been ultra professional behind the scenes despite not getting the move he wanted in the summer but, as Keane suggested, the current situation feels unsustainable for all involved. Ronaldo is many things but, even at 37 and with his powers waning, he is not a substitute. “Okay Ronaldo is motivated with the World Cup coming up but if he’s on the bench for Manchester United week in, week out it’s not good,” Keane said. “It’s just going to get uglier.”
Micah Richards countered his Sky colleague by asking Keane whether Ronaldo’s style of play suits the way United want to go to inevitable eye-rolling from the man sat next to him. But any argument about the Portuguese’s perceived inability to press becomes redundant when you observe the contributions of Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho against City.
There was no pressing going on from either player, even though both are being picked supposedly because they are more capable of it than Ronaldo. Indeed, the number of times Manuel Akanji and Nathan Ake were allowed to bring the ball out unchecked from the centre of City’s defence to kickstart attacks was almost as embarrassing as the final scoreline. Neither Rashford nor Sancho looked particularly interested in pressing and even unsure of how to go about doing so.
Keane ridiculed Ten Hag’s suggestion about not bringing on Ronaldo with United down and out as a mark of respect to the player. “Of course he could have brought him on,” Keane said. “So what if he was 4-0 down. You look at his goals record. He’s as good a chance as anyone of putting the ball in the net. People obsess about the pressing side of the game. If you put the ball in the right areas, he’ll score goals.”
The Europa League has been cited as Ronaldo’s best chance of minutes this season but it will be interesting to see if he starts against Omonia Nicosia in Cyprus on Thursday. Anthony Martial scored twice as a second half substitute against City upon his return from injury and Ten Hag will be keen to get more minutes into the France striker. But starting Ronaldo would necessitate shifting Martial - whom Ten Hag regards as a No. 9 and his most intelligent presser - to the flanks. All ways round, the logic of keeping Ronaldo if he is not going to start becomes harder to fathom.
There are six weeks until the season pauses for the World Cup finals in Qatar and the Ronaldo conundrum is not going away.