All the twists and turns of a summer-long transfer saga condensed into the space of a few days. Cristiano Ronaldo seemed destined for the Etihad Stadium but now an even more remarkable story is unfolding as he returns to Manchester United.
It is 13 years since his departure. Thirteen years during which he has scored 551 goals in 572 appearances for Real Madrid and Juventus, adding four more Champions Leagues to the one he claimed with Manchester United and a whole lot more besides.
His return is a thrilling and emotive prospect for supporters. Ronaldo is still adored at Old Trafford, his name still sung in the terraces and his achievements still a source of considerable pride.
But will his extraordinary, trophy-hoarding success continue under his former team-mate Ole Gunner Solskjaer? And what kind of player are United getting all these years later?
Goal record shows enduring value
Ronaldo is undoubtedly a different player from the one who left Old Trafford more than a decade ago but even at 36 years old, he remains an exceptional goalscorer.
His output is no longer at the extraordinary heights of his peak years at Real Madrid, where he regularly surpassed the 50-goal mark, but he leaves Juventus having netted 101 times in 134 games for the Italian giants at an average of nearly 34 per season.
Ronaldo was unable to prevent them from slumping to a fourth-place finish last season but there was a Coppa Italia triumph to add to the back-to-back Serie A titles he won in the previous two campaigns and he was no less prolific in front of goal.
In fact, his total of 29 Serie A goals put him five clear of anyone else in the division. Across Europe’s major leagues, only two players – Lionel Messi (30) and Robert Lewandowski (41) – scored more.
Ronaldo followed up those domestic scoring exploits with a five-goal haul for Portugal at Euro 2020, eclipsing Miroslav Klose as the top-scoring player at World Cups and European Championships and equalling the all-time international scoring record on 109 goals.
Age has not blunted his goalscoring instincts. In fact, he has scored more times in the last three seasons in Italy than he did in the final three of his first stint with Manchester United.
He remains remarkably robust for a player of his age too. Across his three full seasons in Turin, Ronaldo featured in 85 per cent of Juventus’ Serie A fixtures and an even higher percentage of their Champions League games.
The numbers will encourage Solskjaer and United that he has plenty left to offer. Ronaldo turns 37 in February but he remains one of the world’s best players. And crucially, for a side which needs more of them, he still brings a guarantee of goals too.
His evolution explained
Ronaldo’s extraordinary longevity is down, in part, to his ability to adapt and evolve his game.
The Portuguese left Old Trafford in 2009 as an explosive but at times erratic winger. He returns as an unrivalled goal poacher, less involved in general play but utterly ruthless in the opposition box.
That is not to say he has deserted the flanks. At Juventus, Ronaldo was used as one of two central strikers alongside Alvaro Morata, meaning he still had freedom to drift towards the left, from where he cut inside to such devastating effect as a young player.
But back at United, Solskjaer’s preference for a 4-2-3-1 formation means Ronaldo will likely play as a lone striker and may therefore be required to position himself more centrally.
In truth, that adjustment is likely to suit him. After all, Ronaldo scored the majority of goals for Juventus from between the width of the posts and it was a similar story for much of his time in Madrid.
He still has a penchant for the spectacular and still likes to try his luck from long distance, but his shotmap for last season in Serie A underlines how the emphasis has changed.
Ronaldo only scored once from outside the area. A player who previously scored all kinds of goals now gravitates towards the six-yard box – and few are more clinical than him there.
It helps, of course, that he has so many different strands to his game.
Ronaldo was not known for his heading ability as a young player but it has become a formidable weapon over the course of his career.
Some of his most memorable goals have been scored with his head. His winner for Real Madrid in their 2011 Copa del Rey final triumph over Barcelona sticks in the memory and so does the gravity-defying leap that allowed him to find the net for Juventus against Sampdoria in December 2019.
Last season, he was particularly prolific in terms of headed goals. His total of seven was the highest in Serie A and the second-highest in any of Europe’s major leagues behind only Andre Silva and Sasa Kalajdzic at Eintracht Frankfurt and Stuttgart respectively.
Interestingly, Edinson Cavani only fell one short of his total on six. But the addition of another striker capable of dominating in the air could prove helpful for a side who only managed to score seven goals from corners and free-kicks in the Premier League last season.
What it means for others
For all the excitement around Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford, there are also question marks about what it means for some of the other players in Solskjaer’s squad.
United have started the season with Mason Greenwood leading the line and the 19-year-old has seized his chance by scoring twice in two games. But would he have got that opportunity in the first place had Ronaldo been available?
Cavani is likely to be the player impacted most by his arrival, of course, given the Uruguayan plays exclusively at centre-forward. Solskjaer is sure to talk up Ronaldo’s presence as a positive thing for United’s younger players too.
But the 36-year-old has not arrived to play a supporting role. The reality is that game-time will almost certainly be reduced for Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and the £73m Jadon Sancho.
There will be fears that their development could be stunted at a time when they need to be playing regularly, and the issue of what to do with Paul Pogba may resurface too.
Pogba has been outstanding on the left of United’s front three lately but he may now need to drop back into a deep-lying midfield role for which he is ill-suited in order to accommodate others.
Ronaldo does not solve issues elsewhere either. The right-back position has not been strengthened and nor has central midfield. It is reasonable to wonder whether those needs are more pressing.
But the opportunity to bring back Ronaldo was deemed too good to pass up and, for now, the rest can wait.
On Monday Night Football this week, Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville spoke of the need for Manchester United to add an elite striker in order to bridge the gap to Manchester City, querying why the club hadn’t moved for Tottenham’s Harry Kane.
Little did he know they would turn to his former team-mate only a few days later. It remains to be seen whether Ronaldo’s second spell at Old Trafford will prove anything like as successful as his first. But it will be fascinating to find out.
Rarely has a transfer set pulses raising quite like this.
View from Italy: Was Ronaldo a success at Juventus?
Sky Sports’ Peter Smith and Sky in Italy’s Valentina Fass:
Two league titles, one Coppa Italia and one Italian Super Cup. Cristiano Ronaldo collected plenty of silverware during his three full seasons at Juventus. And that’s before you count the two Serie A player of the year awards and a top scorer prize.
However, given the Italian side’s poor record in the Champions League over that period, in which they managed one quarter-final appearance and two exits at the round-of-16 stage, was the 100m Euro transfer fee and 31m Euro per year wages worth it?
On the pitch, there can be few complaints about Ronaldo’s personal numbers. While 21 league goals in his first season was his lowest return since his days at Manchester United, he was still the club’s top scorer and responded with 60 goals across the next two campaigns, outscoring everyone else in Italy last year.
But given how his playing style has evolved, finding the right combination of players around him was essential for success in Europe but Massimiliano Allegri, Maurizio Sarri, and the inexperienced Andrea Pirlo were unable to find the answers.
The club’s fourth-place finish last season – albeit in the face of improved competition from Inter Milan – perhaps reflected a failure over recent years to reinforce the squad appropriately.
Ronaldo’s move to Juventus was about more than just football, though. There were $60m worth of shirt sales in the first 24 hours after his unveiling. Six million social media followers were added to Juve’s accounts.
Would Juventus have achieved the results they did without him? Quite possibly. There’s a good chance they’ll go on to win Serie A without him this season. But he boosted the Juventus brand across the globe significantly and in this modern era that is hugely valuable. The club will be counting the cost of their spending on him for some time to come but they’ll also be enjoying the rewards of the exposure he gave them.
Ronaldo drew people who had no affiliation with Juventus into stadiums. It has been reminiscent of the buzz Maradona created in Italian football in the past. And Juve supporters still adore him. They don’t want to see him go.
But it seems Ronaldo will be trading in his secluded, heavily-guarded and private villa in the Turin hills this summer. By all accounts, he has enjoyed his Italian adventure and the challenges of Serie A and while he wasn’t able to inspire them to the ultimate prize, he has added more accolades to his trophy cabinet.
He doesn’t come cheap but his Juventus experience proves to the next club investing in him that Ronaldo, even at the age of 36, still brings goals, glamour and global media attention.
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