A subject went unaddressed in Erik ten Hag’s programme notes. Someone went unmentioned. There was an 81-word paragraph on the following page; on the off-chance anyone who had turned up at Old Trafford under the illusion that Cristiano Ronaldo still played for Manchester United, it alerted them to his departure, if not the circumstances of perhaps the most explosive exit since Roy Keane’s in 2005. The brevity was telling.
It was scarcely a tribute but then perhaps Ronaldo’s final act at United was to mean that, if not quite airbrushed from history, he was certainly consigned to the past. Supporters chorused for the Glazers to go; there were no nostalgic chants of “Viva Ronaldo”. Instead, life after Ronaldo began with an illustration of how United can benefit from the departure of the scorer of 819 goals in the most prolific career of all.
Beating Burnley was expected; home ties against lower-league opponents ought to be won. But liberated individuals and a more fluid team offered a glimpse of the type of football Ten Hag wants. Ronaldo’s second coming became a lost year for United. If, for some, the aim is to rewind the clock to rediscover form they showed for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, now Ten Hag can shape a future.
Bruno Fernandes looks a dual beneficiary of Ronaldo’s fall from grace. United feels his team again, Portugal for the first time. He was terrific in three of his four starts in the World Cup and still struck the bar in the other. He served as the playmaker-in-chief on his return to club duty.
He pierced the Burnley defence when Alejandro Garnacho missed an early chance. He delivered two glorious diagonal passes from left to right, one to Aaron Wan-Bissaka that led to Christian Eriksen’s opener, the other to Rashford when Scott McTominay shot wide. Each was evidence that Fernandes responds to runners around him; he is stymied by a more static striker. Ten Hag praised his stand-in skipper for a “great pass” to bring the opener. The interchanging of positions, so a right-back could appear on the right wing to cross and one of the deeper-lying midfielders in the six-yard box to finish, spoke to the power of a collective.
“I thought it was a great goal and the timing of the movements was fantastic,” said Marcus Rashford. “It almost looks like a simple goal but it was like clockwork.” He scored the second himself and if a solo run from his own half was reminiscent of Ronaldo in his first spell at United, few suffered more from Ronaldo’s return than Rashford. It was far from the only factor in the worst season of his career but Rashford’s renaissance accelerated as Ronaldo left.
Rashford only scored five league goals with the Portuguese on the pitch; after three in the World Cup came one against Burnley. “He was great,” said Ten Hag. “I think he was a constant threat and playing on the backline and was dangerous with his dribbling and movement. He runs so much. Eventually you get the benefit.”
It probably was not a veiled criticism of the man who barely runs at all, but there is a case for saying Ronaldo sucks the oxygen out of the rest of an attack. Rashford was diminished in his presence but noted that, on his surge to score: “There is space in front of you and you’re almost waiting for the right time to get a pass off but the gap opened.”
Ronaldo might have filled that gap, or blocked his way. Instead, Anthony Martial, Ten Hag’s chosen striker, made a decoy run from in to out, from the middle to the right flank. Martial had freed up room for Eriksen for the opener by allowing the Dane to run past him to become the most advanced player.
It points to a shared responsibility to scoring. Indeed, the job of leading the line went to three players at different points: first Martial, then Rashford and finally Anthony Elanga. That the Swede is not really a striker points to a relative shortage of forwards. On a night with no Jadon Sancho, deemed not ready mentally or physically, and when Alejandro Garnacho was wasteful, showing a prodigy may not be ready to be a regular, it underlined why United want to add another attacker. Antony will presumably start against Nottingham Forest on Tuesday but Rashford has become United’s first-choice forward again, just as Fernandes is the main man. And neither was a status he held last season after Ronaldo’s return.
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