Erik ten Hag

Manchester United officials probably felt this was going to be the quietest week of the season. After the final Premier League game of the first stage of the season, players were going their separate ways, many to Qatar, some off on holiday. It was the calm before the storm whips up again.

But dreams of a relaxing week to take stock and refresh have been dashed for the club’s key decision-makers. Instead, Joel Glazer, Richard Arnold, John Murtough and Erik ten Hag have had to deal with their best-paid player lobbing grenades in their direction.

The drip-drip of Cristiano Ronaldo’s interview with Piers Morgan hasn’t made life any easier. Clips are appearing every night and while United are disputing the version of some events presented by the 37-year-old, they aren’t rushing into judgement until the full content has been aired tonight and tomorrow.

What they do know is that it won’t be filed under the category ‘easy listening’. None of the clips so far reflect positively on the club, although in truth not many of them reflect well on Ronaldo either. The bombshell revelation that the forward had spoken to Morgan came on Sunday night, with United finding out shortly after their thrilling late win at Fulham.

By 10pm on Sunday, it was clear what was coming this week. Ronaldo accused United of betraying him and said he had no respect for Ten Hag. The club had no option but to get the owner on a call with chief executive Arnold, football director Murtough and the manager, Ten Hag, on Monday.

The club are taking legal advice from their general counsel as well but what comes next isn’t easy to predict. There is a general feeling that it’s impossible for Ronaldo to play for the club again, but can United terminate his contract, or do they need to come to an agreement to rip up the final six months of that deal? If so, do they seek to find a buyer in January or banish him to the Under-21s if, as happened in the summer, there is no interest from Europe’s elite.

That is further complicated by Ronaldo’s presence in Qatar at the World Cup. Do United need to speak to the forward before taking any disciplinary action? If so, he probably won’t be back at Carrington for another month.

This has been dreadfully timed from United’s point of view, but it’s safe to say Ronaldo knew exactly what he was doing. Even still, the club don’t want to get involved in a public tete-a-tete with one of their greatest-ever players and they want the end to, somehow, be dignified.

The timing of the interview won’t be lost on Ten Hag, however. His comments in the immediate aftermath of the injury-time winner at Craven Cottage on Sunday feel even more telling now.

“We are now united, we have togetherness, the dressing room, the staff, the directors, the whole club, and the fans. There’s a togetherness, and I’m really happy with that development,” he told broadcasters.

“I think we have a base. We’re going in the right direction. I think the culture has changed; the attitude, the mentality has changed and that’s good. I think also now we improve our football base. We have got a better mentality and you see today I think is the symbol of it, when you get the win in the last dying seconds of the game.”

The wins against Aston Villa and Fulham were secured without Ronaldo, who claimed illness the week before a World Cup that is defining for his legacy and what remains of his career.

Ten Hag has mentioned the value of team spirit incessantly this season and it’s been evident on the pitch that it is growing. The scenes in front of the away end on Sunday demonstrated that.

The improved mood amongst the collective at Carrington has been achieved despite Ronaldo. He has been a bubbly presence at times on the training ground, but his relationship with Ten Hag has been awkward.

Then there was the major show of indiscipline against Tottenham, when he refused to come on as a substitute and left the ground early, a misdemeanour for which United were perhaps too lenient, in retrospect. Ten Hag has had to toe a line between being deferential to Ronaldo and making sure he doesn’t destroy the spirit in the dressing room.

He remains a major influence to some players, although his stature amongst the squad has shrunk and that is understandable. They would clearly be better off if he wasn’t there now and that must be a conclusion Ten Hag has come to as well.

It felt telling that the new United manager began to shift opinion on Ronaldo within weeks of working with him, from wanting him as a key part of his squad to being open to his departure before the transfer window closed.

Now his primary objective has to be protecting that unity he spoke so glowingly of on Sunday night. Ronaldo’s unauthorised interview has thrown his manager, his teammates and his club under the bus. There can be no coming back.

From a financial perspective, United might hope a buyer can be found in January, but they have to follow Ten Hag’s instinct on this. If he wants Ronaldo gone, then he should be gone before Christmas.


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