By the time Manchester United's £25m or so was in Juventus's account, there wasn't really much time left to find a replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo. But perhaps if there had have been though, the Old Lady still wouldn't have bothered.
After all, Real Madrid didn't. Florentino Perez - a man who covets superstars like a millionaire in a Porsche showroom - received a world-record fee for an over-30 and didn't bother reinvesting it. Even when Ronaldo broke the transfer record in 2009, Sir Alex Ferguson's reaction was to bring in Antonio Valencia and Michael Owen, almost choosing to ignore the Ronaldo-shaped hole on the lefthand flank.
That's odd. Because the Portuguese forward is perhaps the biggest difference between winning and losing in almost any game he plays in. He's dragged his team through Champions League knockouts with hat tricks like he can turn the difficulty level down on an opponent's defence. He can jump into the clouds to turn a wayward cross into the back of the net. He was there, most recently, where you'd expect him to be against Villarreal at Old Trafford: the ultimate full-stop.
Essentially, Ronaldo is unignorable. But while it may help Max Allegri shine a light on some of his other players this season, for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, CR7's beam is more of a hindrance than a help right now.
It's all the more frustrating because of how often United have been here before. Solskjaer himself had to make the tough call to offload big-money Romelu Lukaku from Old Trafford because he didn't suit his style. Just as Zlatan Ibrahimovic - for all his goals - made United more one-dimensional. Even the last big-money No.7 that United poached from under City's noses, Alexis Sanchez, was a veer away from all that was good about the side right then to something big, somewhat static and costly, almost for the sake of it.
There was much to be excited about at the start of the season, too. Things weren't perfect - some United fans will claim that they haven't been close under Ole - but Paul Pogba had found his niche on the left, the midfield seemed to function nicely, while the likes of Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho were excellent options on the wings, both on and off the ball.
The decision to renew Cavani, too, was a masterstroke at the time. The Uruguayan is an excellent presser who can stretch the space that United's clutch of young talent can operate in behind. Ronaldo doesn't do that: he drifts to the left. He doesn't stretch play; his movement is good but he weakens United's press. With Pogba in the same attack, it makes it difficult for United to sustain attacks.
And perhaps more importantly, a long-term plan has suddenly been ditched now that United have strapped themselves to Ronaldo's insatiable lust for silverware. Form dips with Greenwood leading the line and Sancho adjusting to English football are, for United fans at least, somewhat acceptable, with one eye on the future. With Ronaldo up top, Solskjaer needs to be winning now. That's what the Portuguese is here for. There's no adjustment understanding.
🗣 "There are issues as their performances are nowhere near good enough."🗣 "Manchester United at this moment in time are imbalanced." pic.twitter.com/ZbtRwxK89dOctober 17, 2021
Solskjaer has made plenty of mistakes in the last few weeks and should he keep his job, he'll likely make a few more going forward. But whoever's at the wheel is going to have the same issue. How do you get the best out of a team that is geared to Cristiano Ronaldo... when so few of the other parts work specifically for him?
It's not an impossible quandary. After all, this is the man who has already been the difference being winning and losing for United in his return: he'll probably be so again very soon. But working out this delicate balance between a superstar and the rest of the side is something that United have had to go through enough over the last few years - and it looks like the biggest puzzle that the club needs to solve again.
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