It certainly wasn’t bad for starters. Cristiano Ronaldo‘s return to Manchester United wasn’t short on hype and expectation but, as he so often does under a bit of pressure, the Portuguese star delivered the goods.
Two goals against Newcastle on Saturday were the perfect way to mark his Premier League comeback and his mere presence inspires hope among United fans they can challenge for silverware this season.
But Ronaldo’s impact at Old Trafford will be measured on so much more besides goals and assists. It’s already becoming apparent this born winner will inspire higher standards among his team-mates.
Cristiano Ronaldo made a stunning return to English football by scoring twice in Manchester United’s 4-1 win over Newcastle United on Saturday afternoon
It’s already clear that Ronaldo (left) is raising standards among his team-mates at United
One young United fans holds up a sign asking for Ronaldo’s shirt at Old Trafford on Saturday
His return has also helped pacify a fanbase that was becoming seriously disillusioned with the club’s owners, the Glazer family, after the European Super League fiasco earlier this year.
We take a closer look at Ronaldo’s impact not only in terms of his own performance but the knock-on effect on his team-mates and the wider picture at United.
THE ULTIMATE PENALTY BOX POACHER
The evolution of Ronaldo as a player in the 18 years since his first United debut was certainly evident on Saturday afternoon.
Back in 2003, when he first dazzled the Old Trafford audience with a flurry of flicks and tricks against Bolton Wanderers as an 18-year-old prodigy, he was very much a tricky winger.
His brief was to collect the ball out wide and run directly at opponents, bamboozling them with step-overs before delivering a shot, cross or cut-back.
Over time, as Ronaldo has matured as a player, he’s occupied more central positions on the pitch, even if his 20.2mph burst to score his second goal against Newcastle proved his electric pace remains.
A delighted Stretford End celebrates Ronaldo’s second goal after he made a 20.2mph sprint
Ronaldo has become the ultimate penalty area predator and a career scoring record of 787 goals for club and country attests to his ability to always be in the right position in front of goal.
That was demonstrated yet again with his first goal as he anticipated that Newcastle keeper Freddie Woodman might spill a deflected shot from Mason Greenwood.
The deadliest scorers must always hope something might come their way and ensure they’re in the optimal position to capitalise.
Ronaldo was in perpetual motion against Newcastle, always sniffing in and around the penalty area for that opening, always alive to the potential chance.
The Portuguese star was always alert to any chances that could come his way on Saturday
He showed his electric pace remains undiminished even at the age of 36 for the second goal
United were blessed with a pretty scary forward line even before Ronaldo arrived from Juventus – they have Greenwood, Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes, Edinson Cavani, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.
But Saturday proved that Ronaldo will elevate this to a whole new level. He fired off six shots during the game and scored from two of them. In tight contests, he could easily prove the difference time after time.
On Saturday night, bookmakers were already slashing the odds on Ronaldo to be this season’s Premier League Golden Boot winner. He is a true goal machine and you wouldn’t want to bet against it.
IMMEDIATE UNDERSTANDING WITH TEAM-MATES
What was remarkable was how Ronaldo tuned into the wavelength of his team-mates after just a couple of training sessions with them.
After his £19.8million move from Juventus was concluded Ronaldo went away on international duty with Portugal, then had to go through five days of Covid quarantine at his home in Cheshire.
It wasn’t until Wednesday that Ronaldo trained at Carrington for the first time and there was plenty of chat about him sitting the Newcastle game out.
Fat chance! Not only did Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pick Ronaldo in his squad but he started him and didn’t regret the decision.
In a sign that he has become more selfless over the years, or was trying his best to fit in without any frustrations, Ronaldo constantly dropped back from his centre forward role to help out his team-mates.
Ronaldo and his Portuguese compatriot Bruno Fernandes linked up well on Saturday
Ronaldo’s touch map (left) and pass chart (right) from the Newcastle game showed a player willing to drop deeper and drift to the left side in order to make something happen
Indeed, he was often occupying similar space to his compatriot Bruno Fernandes but this didn’t seem to cause any friction as they worked off each other and both got on the scoresheet.
With Newcastle’s defenders drawn to Ronaldo, this created more room for United’s wide players Greenwood and Sancho but Ronaldo also gravitated out to the left as well.
His touch and pass maps from the game clearly show this but it didn’t seem to affect United’s flow in the slightest.
If this was the Ronaldo effect with just a couple of training sessions under his belt, then just think how things will be in a few weeks or months.
SANCHO CAN GO UNDER THE RADAR
Imagine for a moment that Ronaldo wasn’t playing for United on Saturday and they’d been held to a 1-1 draw by Newcastle.
There would have been heaps of criticism for Sancho, their marquee £73m summer signing, who put in a six-out-of-10 performance as he continues to slowly settle into life in a United shirt.
This was Sancho’s second start for United, having come off the bench in their opening two Premier League games against Leeds United and Southampton.
It’s clear that Jadon Sancho will need time to settle into the rhythm of the Premier League
Sancho and Ronaldo speak during the warm-ups ahead of the game with Newcastle
Man United fixtures
Premier League unless stated
Tuesday Young Boys (A)
September 19 West Ham (A)
September 22 West Ham (H)
Carabao Cup third round
September 25 Aston Villa (H)
September 29 Villarreal (H)
In the matches against Wolves prior to the international break and against Newcastle, he has been subbed off in the second-half. On Saturday, his replacement Jesse Lingard went on to score United’s fourth goal.
Sancho has done little wrong but it’s hardly been a spectacular introduction to life at Old Trafford. Ronaldo’s arrival can help him.
It can easily be forgotten that Sancho, though an England international, has never played in senior English football and it’s going to take a little bit of time to adapt from the Bundesliga to the Premier League.
With Ronaldo dominating the headlines and hogging all the attention, Sancho is now afforded more time to get used to playing for United with less of the pressure on his shoulders.
Ronaldo can also help create chances for Sancho – there was one example on Saturday, but the winger couldn’t direct his shot on target after Ronaldo’s run had distracted defenders.
It works both ways as well. Sancho has been playing mainly on the left side for United so far and if he continues to stretch defenders by attacking down that wing, Ronaldo will have more room to exploit in the centre.
THE PERFECT MENTOR FOR GREENWOOD
Commentating on BBC Radio 5 Live on Saturday afternoon, Chris Waddle spoke about how Greenwood should be bending Ronaldo’s ear each and every day in training to learn the secrets of his success.
The 19-year-old has shown from his brilliant United career so far that he has the potential to be a world class player and he is one of the most accomplished finishers at the club.
Ronaldo, at 36, has been there and won it throughout his career and there is no better mentor for the teenager.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will hope Ronaldo can act as a mentor for teenager Mason Greenwood
19-year-old Greenwood already has the Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani to learn from
Even if Ronaldo only stays for a couple of years, Greenwood should be observing everything he does on and off the pitch, the pure devotion and dedication to his craft.
Greenwood had already been taken under the wing by Cavani, 34. The Uruguayan rather sweetly stepped in to defend the youngster from some rough treatment from Roma during last season’s Europa League semi-final.
Now his football education has got even better. Greenwood should soak it all up.
INSPIRING A WINNING CULTURE
United keeper Lee Grant has revealed how none of Ronaldo’s new team-mates dared go up for dessert during dinner on the eve of the Newcastle game.
Apple crumble and brownies with cream are seemingly off the menu as Ronaldo sat there munching through quinoa, avocado and boiled eggs.
It’s likely to be just the first of the culture changes Ronaldo’s arrival inspires and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer certainly won’t complain if standards are raised.
Ronaldo has always been meticulous about how he trains and what he eats and the results are there for everyone to see.
The health-conscious Portuguese star has also apparently already impacted on diets as well
Rio Ferdinand spoke last week about how some of his United team-mates mocked Ronaldo when, even as a teenager, he surrounded himself with an entourage of nutritionists, masseurs and personal chefs.
He strictly controls everything he eats – splitting his daily intake into six small meals – works out for 3-4 hours a day and takes five power naps to help his muscles recover properly.
While not everyone at United can be expected to do all that, there is at last a core of winners in the dressing room.
A good diet involving six high-protein mini-meals a day is behind Ronaldo’s stunning displays
As well as making sure he eats all the right foods, Ronaldo naps often throughout the day
United haven’t won the Premier League since Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season in 2012-13 and they haven’t won anything since Jose Mourinho delivered the Europa League and EFL Cup in 2017.
It seemed that winning had slipped out of the United DNA but this summer’s arrival of Ronaldo and Raphael Varane – a 2018 World Cup winner with France and four-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid – can help restore it.
Solskjaer desperately needs to deliver silverware this season and will hope the winning mentality of these players will rub off on everybody else.
There was little need for it on Saturday but Ronaldo certainly isn’t shy in berating team-mates who fail to spot him in a scoring position or who make a silly mistake.
Solskjaer revealed that Ronaldo has already spoken about higher standards and it’s now time to put that into practice.
Manager Solskjaer needs Ronaldo to help win some long-overdue silverware at Old Trafford
TRANFORMING THE MOOD AT OLD TRAFFORD
It was only in May that furious fans stormed inside Old Trafford and caused United’s game against Liverpool to be postponed.
The fall-out from the Glazer family and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward signing United up to the breakaway European Super League was absolutely toxic and the strength of feeling forced the abandonment of the idea.
But the protests that still followed that were about something much wider – discontent at the Glazer’s running of the club, taking vast sums of money out while permitting mediocrity on the pitch.
Though some fans still wore green and gold protest scarves and there were some isolated chants against the Glazers on Saturday, the general mood at Old Trafford was euphoric.
Furious United fans stormed the Old Trafford pitch in May, causing the postponement of a game against Liverpool, in protest at the club’s owners and the European Super League
Good summer recruitment and Ronaldo’s return has helped placate some of the angry fans
It was telling that Avram Glazer felt able to attend a game in person for the first time in two years, while Woodward sat nearby and chatted in cordial fashion with Ronaldo’s agent Jorge Mendes.
The Ronaldo effect and good summer recruitment has transformed the mood of the fanbase and taken some of the sting out of the bad feeling at the end of last season.
That isn’t to say the protests will completely die away but for now at least, the mood is euphoric at the return of a club hero and a genuine shot at the title.
United owner Avram Glazer attended his first match at Old Trafford in two years on Saturday
United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward watches Ronaldo’s return at Old Trafford
The mood inside Old Trafford on Saturday was euphoric with little sign of any protest
Woodward is still on his way out later this year, with his successor due to be announced, but it looks like he’ll exit on much better terms than appeared to be the case four months ago.
As for the Glazers, this has to just be the start because not every United fan is going to be bribed by some high-profile signings. Promises to engage more readily with the fanbase must be kept.