Now the dust has settled – is the Cristiano Ronaldo transfer a gamble Solskjaer can afford to take?

If you’re as old as me you might recall that episode of the Young Ones where Rik is particularly annoyed at Neil for trying to bring the buzz down. “I bet I know what you write on public toilets,” he says, “Kill Joy was here.”

That’s how I feel writing this, but now the initial euphoria is settling, it’s probably time to look at the Cristiano Ronaldo transfer with a more critical eye.

After all, the press certainly seem to have. Oliver Holt predictably has gone in on it being a bad move. Less predictably, Jonathan Wilson effectively derided the nostalgic element of the transfer, at the same time criticising Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s status as a former player who is managing Manchester United.

You could expect that there would be some negativity in the press. It’s not, as the vernacular suggests, a complete ‘no-brainer’.

Let it be said that it’s not a completely universal abandon of reason at Old Trafford. There is a small, but not insignificant, number of faces associated with the club that have a little reservation about the transfer.

It’s not enough to voice opposition – Cristiano is a hugely popular player and a great one to boot – but it’s a reservation borne from the pressure it increases on the shoulders of Solskjaer as a manager.

It’s not like the Norwegian has gone about his work without pressure. It’s come from the outside and it’s come from the inside, with some supporters still unconvinced, even if the welcome return of fans has illustrated that those who really dislike him are an angry minority looking for attention online.

Reservation about his capability as a manager is fair. Yesterday his selection of Fred as the disciplined member of the midfield seemed poor judgement, and more significantly than that it was the continuation of a trend where he seems to feel that continued faith will eventually transform the player into one that can be relied upon.

That’s not a complete pop at Fred – he excels in big games as a disruptor, but United’s requirement is for a player who can settle the game in the middle and help dictate the tempo and flow of a game. The skillsets of the players and how they complement each other is one thing, but it’s clear that no existing combination at the club brings this quality – we have the evidence of almost five years to tell us this. Solskjaer knows.

He knows it. He also knows that the signing of Ronaldo increases the pressure so much that it moves the needle from a team expected to challenge to one expected to win, in spite of the deficiencies in the side.

The transfer was an interesting study in the philosophy of the owners. By all accounts, any reasonable follower would acknowledge an extra body in the middle of the park was necessary. There were many of us who were giving the benefit of the doubt after an impressive steady summer.

When Ronaldo became available, that same section of fans didn’t expect us to be able to go for him. But we did. We found that money from somewhere and have made a commitment that will be north of £50m in terms of fee and salary. Ronaldo might well be worth that – in the short term, the club’s value rose by $250m, so you could argue it already is.

As the dust is settling, it’s only reasonable for us to ask… well, if the money was there for an exceptional case, then what is it that made a midfielder less of an exceptional case? If I was Solskjaer – and thank god I’m not, because I don’t envy the pressure – I would be inclined to push it to ask the question.

If we had signed a midfielder and not Ronaldo, then the expectation on Solskjaer would have risen incrementally. In proportion. It would have been in keeping with the sensible brick-by-brick building. The expectation would be that United are better equipped to challenge – but nobody would have been putting them as favourites, as well they shouldn’t, considering the squad depth at City and Chelsea and the undoubted quality of the Liverpool team.

That’s where the reservation from some attached to the club comes. The stability Ole has brought back to the club has been welcome and most with a reasonable head on their shoulders can see the progress. They don’t want to see him unfairly criticised.

The Ronaldo move is not a transfer in keeping with that policy, so increasing pressure on the manager means a swifter necessity to come to conclusions on better midfield pairs. Or a swifter necessity for a new man, to ensure we haven’t bought a Ferrari without an engine – as we saw with the acquisition of Lukaku without a player who supplied the passes.

United have the players to supply Ronaldo but also a chasm where the player who ties the defence to those creative stars should be.

Ronaldo doesn’t solve that problem. Let’s not expect that he should. But his mere presence increases the level of attention – on a club that already has the most scrutiny – and at the same time decreases the level of patience for a successful United team. Without a fix, some will look at this obvious deficiency and wonder why and how the manager hasn’t addressed it. It will be a fair question. But, again, Solskjaer knows that, he knows it’s an issue and he made the move for Ronaldo with this in mind.

Are there any pitfalls of bringing him back into this squad? Perhaps. Every move is unpredictable. Even though Ronaldo knows the Premier League, and even though Ibrahimovic serves as an example of the success of such a move, you just don’t know what will happen until it does. The young talent at the club are currently buzzing.
Will they still have that buzz in December, when one or two of them are not playing as often as they like? Can Solskjaer maintain a healthy balance and a healthy mood? If Ronaldo gets frustrated due to the midfield playing as it has for the last two games, will his (justified) ego be a positive influence?

These are the hypotheticals on top of the practical issue in midfield. United fans will probably already begin to wonder about what money is actually available for addressing emergencies and if a midfielder doesn’t arrive they will be weaponised with two strong arguments if success doesn’t follow from this point.

Solskjaer has implicated himself in this. The biggest decision he had to make over Ronaldo was hardly in the nature of how good he is or what he will bring.

It was in pressing the button – the button which instantly transforms the level of expectation and brings it closer. The time is now. It’s that which has increased the anxiety levels of all who want the club, and Solskjaer, to succeed. Are they ready?

But you could look at that and say that in the eyes of many, this was the season anyway where the demand on Solskjaer was to win a trophy to prove the progress.

As Manchester United manager, he is always the prime candidate to receive criticism. Ronaldo’s arrival is just convenient and easy fodder.

The transfer is a gamble. There’s no getting away from that – but, considering this season was the one where Solskjaer will likely have a pivotal moment either way, it was probably wiser to gamble with Ronaldo than without him. You might even argue that he couldn’t afford not to.

If United didn’t go on to win anything, and City had won a league and Champions League with Ronaldo, when he was gettable, then Solskjaer would be surely be looking for work. Now he has him – and the increased pressure of having to win with him in the team is far, far better than the pressure of having to compete against a team with him in.

In that sense, nothing has changed.

And yet, at the same time, everything has.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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