DID you hear the one about a West Ham reject being headhunted by Manchester United? His name is Marko Arnautovic. He’s 33 years old and scored a few goals for the Hammers and Stoke City a few years ago, before ending up at Bologna.
He’s the latest punchline at the Theatre of Foolhardy Dreams, another bad joke in a baffling stand-up routine that never seems to end.
If the solution must be Arnautovic, then the problem can only be a head-scratcher beyond even the cerebral Erik ten Hag. The respected coach assumed he was joining a hallowed institution, as opposed to a social media outfit.
It was a social media outfit that signed Cristiano Ronaldo, which is why elite football clubs are shying away from him now, whispering among themselves as he prances across the dancefloor, still convinced he’s got all the moves to Stayin’ Alive.
But Ronaldo’s career is flatlining and he’s taking his current employers with him. While he hangs on for a club in the Champions League, like a sad sack teen waiting for a last-minute date on prom night, he leaves United into a permanent state of flux, a suspended state of being that will wear down all concerned parties in the end.
Ronaldo will be fine. In the cash-drenched, upper echelons of elite football, he’ll eventually find a wealthy benefactor willing to pay the going rate to parade an Instagram icon. But the fallout will linger at United.
A game of two halves against Brighton and Hove Albion was a fascinating exhibition of two competing philosophies, as if the schizophrenic ten Hag is hedging bets with himself, backing two different Uniteds, one without Ronaldo and one with the recalcitrant glory chaser.
In the first half, ten Hag moved on and United were spectacularly underwhelming. It takes considerable effort to be that nondescript against a mid-table side that had recently sold their two best players (Yves Bissouma and Marc Cucurella), but United would not be denied.
Marcus Rashford tripped over the ball, once literally, far too often metaphorically, struggling to overcome the growing suspicion that the magnificent social activist may not get much better on the pitch. He’s still Robin when the Red Devils really need Batman now.
Jadon Sancho continues to be buffeted by some confusing support from United old boys in TV studios pointing out that the English forward is still young and needs time to settle.
To make a facetious comparison, Sancho is 22, the same age as Erling Haaland. Sancho has toiled in a United jersey for a year. Haaland has been in a competitive Man City jersey for a week and still found time to eviscerate West Ham’s defence, twice, before chastising himself for not swaggering off with the match ball.
Different expectations. Different standards. Different outcome.
Luckily, United could call upon a centre-forward who was not a centre-forward and has rarely played as a centre-forward. Christian Eriksen was shoved up front, in a vague false No.9 role, sort of, maybe. It’s all a game of "pin the donkey" when it comes to United’s formations.
Somewhere, Ralf Rangnick, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, José Mourinho, Louis van Gaal and David Moyes might be indulging themselves with a rueful nod of the head. The Old Trafford boos must have sounded so familiar. These managers didn’t pass on a baton, but a basket case.
One of the brightest managers of his generation was reduced to selecting a 30-year-old midfielder as his leading man, the kind of last ditch-tactics usually witnessed at Bukit Timah's Turf City, where the spare kid is chucked up front because the usual striker has gone down with a bellyache.
The experiment failed. Of course it failed, because United’s longstanding issues are rarely dealt with properly, at the root cause. Instead, panic-stricken executives can usually be found at this point gathering around a hat marked "old men and fading icons", yanking out names and shouting, “Zlatan! … Cavani! … Arnautovic! ... Arnautovic? Really? … There’s no one else! … OK, pick again! … Ronaldo! … Wait, don’t we already have that guy?”
They do. And as night follows day, the dark knight shuffled on to follow the day players. Ronaldo emerged in the 53rd minute, to an engrossing mix of cheers and boos and United improved, marginally.
Eriksen withdrew into his more familiar, incisive role and looked for team-mates after enduring 53 minutes of no-one finding him, highlighting again the lack of progress in dealing with such an imbalanced squad.
The Ronaldo conundrum has hovered over Old Trafford, like one of the many omnipresent clouds in Manchester, for months. It was not fixed.
United knew that Paul Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Jesse Lingard, Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata were likely to leave and create selection issues for the new manager. They were not addressed.
Fred and Scott McTominay are effectively holding midfielders, in search of a swashbuckling, attacking partner. One was not signed. And Harry Maguire continues to turn with the urgency of a blocked tanker in the Suez Canal. He was not sufficiently supported.
Instead, United arguably faced Brighton with a squad weaker than the one that finished last season with seven defeats from their final 12 games, spending too much time being distracted by the Ronaldo paradox. Like the two halves at Brighton, the Red Devils cannot decide whether to get rid of him, despite not having an adequate replacement, or retain a 37-year-old forward and tear up ten Hag’s template.
United arguably faced Brighton with a squad weaker than the one that finished last season with seven defeats from their final 12 games, spending too much time being distracted by the Ronaldo paradox.
United’s entrenched inability to prepare for the long-term, to plan, recruit and settle new players into new systems leave the club not only behind the usual suspects in the top six, but also behind experienced campaigners like Brighton.
Instead, the celebrity cult took hold at Old Trafford. Everything became about Ronaldo, which benefited no one. Liverpool sold Sadio Mane quickly and Manchester City moved on Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling, but United held on for something intangible, as if waiting for a ready-made solution to simply present itself.
It hasn’t happened. Instead, Ronaldo continues to taunt his dithering employers, contemplating his next career move as if it’s his choice alone. His decision. His terms.
The wily striker has essentially bent the malleable mess of a lost football club to his will. United must make a decision on Ronaldo’s future now, one way or the other. Or they can kiss this season goodbye.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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