Cristiano Ronaldo in July 2022. Wayne Rooney in July 2013. Two star forwards whose discontent at Manchester United before pre-season tours starting in Thailand must prove bookends to a miserable nine years for the club.
This is Erik ten Hag’s mission as he prepares to send out a first XI – against Liverpool in Bangkok on Tuesday – as United’s manager: end a near-decade of mediocrity that began when Sir Alex Ferguson retired after winning the club’s most recent title.
Rooney’s unhappiness at United and dalliance with Chelsea in summer 2013 degenerated into a self‑inflicted crisis for David Moyes that dominated a first pre-season trip as United manager. Clumsy soundbites regarding the Liverpudlian’s worth revealed a befuddlement in the job that was his unfortunate modus operandi. Only 34 Premier League games later the club tore up a six-year contract and sacked the Scot.
Ronaldo wanting to exit and being hawked around – again to Chelsea and others – is the first sideshow of Ten Hag’s tenure at an organisation that has come to specialise in these; an unwanted but inevitable baptism for the Dutchman in a role analogous to that of the prime minister given its microscopic scrutiny.
How Ten Hag handles the topic of the future of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner on tour will be a calling card noted by his squad, the media and the rest of the football cabaret. Be cuter regarding Ronaldo than Moyes was with Rooney and a tone is set that will signal the feat he was hired for might be pulled off: to reverse the plunge of the United juggernaut and turn the perennial Manchester City-Liverpool duel into a three-way joust.
To do so, Ten Hag must ensure the trip is a smooth 16-day sojourn which, after the opening match, moves to Melbourne (to face Melbourne Victory and Crystal Palace) before a tour-ending meeting with Aston Villa on Saturday week in Perth.
Although Ronaldo did not make the plane for Bangkok on Friday because of an ongoing family situation, Ten Hag could still study Moyes’s opening week at the sharp end of leading United to learn what not to do, given that Rooney, apart from the first day, was also not present.
On 12 July 2013 Moyes and squad touched down in Bangkok to begin an exhausting trip that also took in Sydney, Tokyo and Hong Kong. Rooney was there yet within 24 hours the 27-year-old was gone because of a hamstring tear identified in the Thai capital. Except: later that day Moyes admitted Rooney had felt a twinge during the final session at United’s Carrington base and thus the first questions arose regarding the manager’s judgment and the wisdom of allowing a prime asset to fly 6,000 miles, only then to perform a scan.
Some context. United’s highest earner had been dropped by Ferguson for the closing phase of the previous season which became a coronation once Robin van Persie’s hat-trick secured victory against Villa with four matches left. Ferguson also claimed Rooney wanted a transfer. Thus, relations were fractious. Yet despite these red flags, Moyes dropped a monumental clanger.
Instead of offering public backing to Rooney under questioning during a sit-down given to Sunday newspaper journalists at the team hotel he said: “Overall my thought on Wayne is, if for any reason we had an injury to Robin van Persie, we’ll need him.” Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman, further inflamed proceedings by declaring that United were not “afraid to run a contract down” – meaning Rooney’s.
Cue the player being “angry and confused”. Moyes also said: “Manchester United isn’t about Wayne. Manchester United is about the team, the club.” True but disastrous man-management and an obvious parallel for Ten Hag and the Ronaldo situation given that, while it is surely best for all parties that the player leaves, he could stay and he remains a hero to many fans.
Ronaldo, like Rooney, is a one-man corporation who believes he possesses the heft to navigate his career precisely as he wishes. Ten Hag, though, may be blessed with an element that evaded Moyes: luck, given that Ronaldo is a decade older than Rooney was then and hardly at the peak of his powers, which Rooney posited he himself was after his manager’s outburst.
Ten Hag showed class at his May managerial unveiling by shaking the hand of all on the front row in the Old Trafford media room – populated mostly by regular correspondents. He has to continue to be as shrewd – regarding Ronaldo and beyond because on Planet United there are copious other issues Ten Hag will be forced to wrestle with while away.
Some of these will include when – if ever – his other targets, Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong and Christian Eriksen (a free agent) plus Ajax’s Antony and Lisandro Martínez, may arrive. Or whether his sole recruit, Tyrell Malacia, was truly a priority with the left-backs Luke Shaw, Alex Telles and Brandon Williams on the books. And who is to be captain because it would be some surprise should the beleaguered Harry Maguire continue.
Oh, and this one, too: where are the goals going to come from if a 24-strikes-in-38-appearances man in Ronaldo is to leave (the official position is he is not for sale)? At the moment it will feel for Ten Hag that all roads circle back to the Portuguese. The 52-year-old’s ability to discharge expertly the Ronaldo Issue and more is a litmus test relating materially to how United’s leader can affect the on-field business of making the team feared again.
As with Moyes nine years ago, a tour on the other side of the world can be an augury of how Ten Hag will fare in the hottest of managerial jobs.