Man United’s promise failed to deliver as Cristiano Ronaldo return led to inevitable exit

With Manchester United, 2021 has been a case of the fantasy not living up to the reality.

Take a team who finished second last season and add Cristiano Ronaldo, a Champions League winner and one of England’s brightest talents.

The recipe, on paper, looks devastating.

That’s exactly what Old Trafford and all those on the red half of Manchester thought when Ronaldo scored twice on his return during a 4-1 win over Newcastle United.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer purring at the prospect of following in his mentor’s footsteps and deliver a first league title since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure.

The initial problem however, and one that seemed to be continuously overlooked by many, dates back to last season.

Leading lights in the media, when things began to go south for United, kept referencing the fact that United finished second last term.

As second place finishes go however, this one had a serious asterisk.

They finished above a Liverpool side minus Virgil van Dijk for much of the year and a Chelsea team in the midst of transition.

Not the greatest barometer of where this United side were at but, nevertheless, Solskjaer’s achievement, on paper, afforded him more time and more cash.

A near miss in Gdansk will go down as a failed opportunity.

Without a trophy since 2017, Solskjaer led United out in the Europa League final, only to see them beaten by Villarreal in a penalty shootout, David de Gea the only man to miss.

Still Solskjaer’s efforts saw him given a new deal – a move Ed Woodward would come to regret.

The Norwegian was upbeat about his team’s chances back when the season begun.

“I’m excited by the squad,” he said. “I don’t think anything is beyond these boys. It’s just how we fare between now and the end of the season.”

The return of Ronaldo, romantic as it may be, bought with it considerable problems. Problems that Solskjaer was unable to address.

The Portuguese star, for all his brilliance, does come with baggage and an acceptance of style.

Hardly one for the modern age pressing game that so many top teams now employ.

His arrival also meant that other players, some of whom will have had their sights set on the No 9 role, were pushed aside.

Mason Greenwood’s drop off since Ronaldo’s arrival has been clear, for example.

Winning can often cover up a lot of cracks, and that’s exactly what happened in wins over the likes of Villarreal and Atalanta in the Champions League.

Defeats to Liverpool and Manchester City, and in particular the manner of, proved to be too much though.

A 5-0 reverse at the hands of the Reds at Old Trafford had Ferguson puffing out his cheeks in disbelief. It was also the first time fans began to suggest time was up for their hero in the dugout.

Less than a fortnight later and City blew their neighbours away, again at Old Trafford. The gulf in class had been, painfully, highlighted.

It was a loss at Watford in humiliating circumstances that eventually saw Solskjaer’s reign ended

The manner in which he waved to the travelling fans made it clear he knew he wouldn’t be doing so again.

And so to the latest era at Old Trafford and Ralf Rangnick.

The German, a pioneer in his homeland, has never taken up a job at what would be renowned as one of Europe’s elite.

The truth is, right now, United are by no means an elite outfit, but very much have the potential to be.

“Right now, we have to be realistic – the gap to the top three is big,” said Rangnick when he first addressed the media.

“But, on the other hand, we’ll see. It’s about developing the team.”

Rangnick’s future is unclear given the potential for him to step aside in the summer when someone, perhaps Mauricio Pochettino, could come in.

However the change in attitude within the club’s ranks will arguably be his most telling contribution, regardless of how long he spends at the helm.

Wins, albeit unconvincing ones, have started his tenure.

Rangnick has no doubt that Ronaldo, the man initially hailed as the difference maker and later a restriction, has a place in his plans.

“You always have to adapt your style to suit the players you have, not vice-versa,” he claimed.

The bare minimum for United is top make the top four, something that, currently, looks to be in jeopardy.

2021 has been a year of false hope, Old Trafford will be seeking an improvement – and some clarity in the dugout – in 2022.