Tthey had come to celebrate Cristiano Ronaldo and they had what they came for: not one, but two opportunities to scream “Yes!” as he celebrated the goals with that characteristic arm extension and groin thrust, sort of a macho version of Lionel Blair indicating he’s mimicking a song title. Everything else, for the moment, could take a back seat: the king has returned.
The announcement of Ronaldo’s name when reading the teams around 2:25 p.m. was greeted with a loud roar. When he ran to warm up, cleverly maximizing his exposure by positioning himself behind Donny van de Beek, a player with a translucent appearance and reputation, there was another visceral cheer. He responded with a driven casually, acknowledging the two long sides of the floor with applause and a thumbs-up. Before kick-off, Ronaldo was the last to come out of the tunnel, so the roar had grown and grown before it emerged behind Paul Pogba.
The kick-off noise was extraordinary, much louder than any championship game at Old Trafford in recent memory, certainly a routine game against lower mid-table opponents. Social media engagements, presumably, were through the roof. Even Executive Co-Chairman Avram Glazer, after a two-year hiatus, came to see him.
Still, there is a weirdness about it, a strange sense of gratitude that Ronaldo, having apparently been quite willing to join Manchester City, has decided to return. A self-confident club might not have such a need to re-invoke the glories of the past.
In the directors’ lodge, Ed Woodward watched, no doubt congratulating himself on a job well done. Any question as to why United have gone eight seasons without a league title despite spending a net half a billion pounds over the past five years can be postponed for a few months, sidetracked by the same nostalgic vow that dilutes Ole Gunnar Solskjær criticizes even though he is the longest-serving United manager not to win a trophy since Dave Sexton.
It was a day without a doubt. It was a day of worship. Ronaldo strutted among his people and they responded with passionate intensity. This is the modern fandom; tribal, unperturbed, unable to treat their heroes with anything other than intimidated respect.
Other than a banner drawn behind a plane, there were no awkward questions here about what exactly happened that night in Las Vegas 12 years ago, although Ronaldo denies all accusations.
There were also no quibbles over the wisdom of paying a 36-year-old £ 500,000 a week when there was apparently no money available to bolster a midfielder who has the looked more and more shabby next to the glitter elsewhere in the team. Could this hinder the development of Mason Greenwood? Could Ronaldo’s presence hamper the creativity of Bruno Fernandes, who has been so vital for United recently but with whom there is no evidence he can play for Portugal? Could his reluctance to press expose this stripped midfielder against top teams?
Ronaldo was good. Or rather, he was good at the things he was good at. He was attentive to the opportunity as Freddie Woodman, baffled by a slight deflection, reversed Mason Greenwood’s shot in added time for the first half. There was a majesty in the way he slowed down and then swept through Isaac Hayden before slamming his second into Woodman’s legs. He remains a scorer of the highest caliber.
But United’s problem last season wasn’t scoring goals. They were the Premier League’s second-best scorers and sort of stepped out of the Champions League despite being 15th in the squad. Their problem was the clumsiness of the midfielder, the lack of consistency which meant they could be thwarted by strong but unspectacular teams – Crystal Palace, West Brom, Sheffield United, Villarreal…
There were alarming signs in the first half that Ronaldo could exacerbate this problem. This is the start and relationships can develop, but when, for example, he broke into the left of the box after 20 minutes and slammed a shot into the side net from a narrow angle, there is no had no one in the center for a center: Greenwood, Jadon Sancho and Fernandes were basically back and watching.
And while the arrival of Ronaldo and the need to host the stars means Pogba is playing more games at the back of the midfielder, United are extremely vulnerable to the block. Newcastle equalized with a breakaway and a more composed team could easily have had a few more.
But it was not a day for worries. It was a day to revel in past glories and, United fans hope, perhaps even believe, future glories. It’s hard to see, however, how Ronaldo addresses the most pressing issue, the element of the squad that has kept United from meeting the title challenge: the midfield organization.