MARTIN SAMUEL: Manchester United have 99 problems but Cristiano Ronaldo is only one

They tried it with him, got beat by two. Tried it, without him, got beat by three. In league meetings this season, it is Manchester City 6 Manchester United 1. It would appear there are more problems at Old Trafford than simply whether Cristiano Ronaldo is on the pitch.

His worth to the club at the moment is as a human shield. While the world debates Ronaldo’s long and short-term future at Old Trafford, and whose fault it is that his move has not been transformative, as was hoped, others at the club escape the heat.

Players, coaches, the hierarchy, particularly those shaping transfer policy. All can hide behind the furore around Ronaldo. It dominated the immediate build-up to this match, with claim and counter-claim about his fitness and readiness. Then, when the game began, a whole fresh raft of problems were sighted. 

The absence of Cristiano Ronaldo stole the headlines before the Manchester derby on Sunday

Their woeful display showed that there are more problems to United than just Ronaldo

Their woeful display showed that there are more problems to United than just Ronaldo

United’s defence, United’s midfield, United’s forward line, United’s heart. There is not one element of the club right now that is functioning as an elite team should. By the end of the second-half they did not even have the fire to compete.

The point away at Atletico Madrid was another false dawn. It wasn’t, after all, that Manchester United had found a way to play badly but still get a point in a functional style. It was that United played badly and, because Atletico lacked ambition, were somehow still in the game late on and lucked out.  

Anthony Elanga’s technical failing did not matter that night because a defender slipped and his scuffed shot found the target to equalise. On Sunday, in a similarly promising position, Elanga took a poor touch and Joao Cancelo whipped the ball off his toes. 

Not that it would have affected the result. With more precise finishing City would have run up the famous six-goal scoreline, achieved at Old Trafford in 2011. Believe it or not, the gap is even greater now.

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United are a club with 99 problems, but Ronaldo is only one. A big one, because he’s a big player, and makes big headlines whatever he does. Yet United are not losing because of Ronaldo, just as they are no longer winning because of him. 

United's players are losing their way and the gap to City is as great as the 6-1 defeat in 2011

United’s players are losing their way and the gap to City is as great as the 6-1 defeat in 2011

He could have played on Sunday and City would still have been victorious, maybe even by the same scoreline. The days when he would have gloried in a challenge like this have passed. 

Since Christmas, Ronaldo has collected as many bookings as goals, and since scoring twice against Arsenal on December 2, he has only found the net against two prime relegation candidates, Burnley and Norwich, plus Brighton. United have won just two of the last seven games in which he has featured.

This was only the second game that Ralf Rangnick has lost in his time as interim manager. Yet those numbers do not tell the whole story. Manchester United are an elite club. They should win most of their matches. 

United were dominated by a classy City side in which Kevin De Bruyne ran the show

United were dominated by a classy City side in which Kevin De Bruyne ran the show

For an elite club, draws are defeats unless they come against equals. So, yes, Rangnick did not officially lose against Newcastle, Aston Villa, Burnley, Southampton and Watford – even Middlesbrough in the FA Cup, although they went out on penalties – but, at elite level, those draws felt more like defeats. And Sunday was confirmation of that. 

Faced with genuinely elite opposition, inspired by one of the world’s finest footballers in Kevin De Bruyne, United were very much second best. The league table suggests this, too. United are a point behind Arsenal, which could become ten taking into account games in hand. 

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Equally, if Tottenham take advantage of outstanding fixtures, they might hare four points ahead. Even West Ham are only separated by two points. There is a sequence of results which see United struggling to stay ahead of the UEFA Conference League place next season. 

Wherever Ronaldo sees his future, one imagines it isn’t Tallinn on a Thursday might. The same can be said of Edinson Cavani, Paul Pogba and several others.

Players like Harry Maguire and Scott McTominay are not performing to United's standards

Players like Harry Maguire and Scott McTominay are not performing to United’s standards

This is a group that has lost its way. Harry Maguire isn’t the player he was at Hull, let alone Leicester, and his partnership with Victor Lindelof was the least convincing since Ant and Dec in drag. 

Scott McTominay’s love of combat will please those who like a bit of red meat on a Sunday, but the fact remains he wouldn’t have been a regular starting central midfield player in any of the great Manchester United teams of the Premier League era, and the same goes for Fred. 

With Ronaldo and Cavani unavailable, it was telling that Elanga was preferred to Marcus Rashford. United used to forge great young players, now they fail them. 

Ronaldo was going to lead by example, and show these graduates what it takes to rise to the very top, and stay there. Rashford is going backwards. He looked better raw, under Louis Van Gaal.

Speaking before the game Rangnick said Manchester United could not afford more mistakes in the transfer market. Given the size of the club this is almost always expensive. Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Donny van de Beek, even Maguire, although his issues are more recent. 

Yet, at the time, few predicted trouble ahead. These were good players. In many cases, United were considered to have stolen a march on their rivals. One of the roots of Antonio Conte’s dissatisfaction at Chelsea was their failure to land Lukaku.

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So what happened? The modern United happened. A club that recruits on how an individual will play on social media, rather than in their team. If Harry Kane had gone to Manchester City we know exactly how he would have fitted into Pep Guardiola’s team structure. 

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Players like Ronaldo and Paul Pogba won’t see their futures playing Europa League football

If he went to United this summer, would we find him looking as bemused and ineffectual as he sometimes does for Tottenham? The transfer market is not an exact science and past records are no guarantee, particularly at United. ‘A goalscoring machine,’ Guardiola called Ronaldo last week. He hasn’t looked it, since returning to Old Trafford.

On Sunday, Rangnick insisted Ronaldo had a hip problem, while on social media there were claims he was fit and ready to play. One such conspiracy theory was liked by Ronaldo’s sister. 

With any other player it would barely have mattered; but this is Ronaldo so his every mood and each nuance in the narrative, is analysed. It’s a nuisance, but also a distraction. 

Was he dropped? Is he injured? What’s he thinking? Where’s he going? If this is the conversation after a 4-1 defeat at Manchester City then, inadvertently, he’s still doing his job. Because the real question should be: how come a result like that is no longer even a surprise?

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