How things have changed at Manchester United in Cristiano Ronaldo’s 12-year absence


During one of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 20 defeats at Old Trafford, the opposition dug-out were puzzled when he stayed in his seat as Manchester United fell behind, and amused when one of his staff entered the technical area instead to bellow ‘Wakey wakey’.

Though that unscientific message was aimed at the underperforming United players, it would also reflect how fans feel about the club as a whole.

Cristiano Ronaldo would probably agree as he compares how the club were when he left them as Champions League finalists in 2009 to how they are now, trophy-less in four years and nine points behind Premier League leaders Chelsea after only 11 games.

But now he's playing for a team struggling to keep pace in the title race and facing an uphill task to get out of their Champions League group

After re-joining Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo can clearly see the club’s fall from grace

Ronaldo’s poor challenge on Kevin De Bruyne at the end of a one-sided Manchester derby on Saturday reflected his personal frustration.

Previously used to working with Carlos Tevez and a prime Wayne Rooney up front, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner had 20-year-old work-in-progress Mason Greenwood alongside him against City.

But it’s not just during matches that Ronaldo will have noticed differences in the 12 years he has been away.

No Fergie to set the atmosphere, less quality and experience among the coaching staff, investment needed in the stadium and training ground, United are no longer brand leaders on or off the pitch.

There is no doubt Solskjaer is a personable individual and knows Manchester United inside-out. But there is surprise given his own modest managerial CV that his coaching staff are also largely unproven.

When Ronaldo won the Champions League in 2008, he saw Ferguson use established and well-respected figures Carlos Queiroz and Rene Meulensteen to run coaching sessions, factor in the latest tactical trends and ensure the players were at peak fitness.

It allowed Ferguson to focus most on his own strengths, man management and creating the right working environment at Carrington.

At the end of Ronaldo's first spell at the club, he played with Carlos Tevez and a prime Wayne Rooney

But he now has a host of forwards in progress around him, like Mason Greenwood and Jadon Sancho

Ronaldo played with a prime Wayne Rooney before but now has a young Mason Greenwood

Though he could pull out the hairdryer on occasion, Ferguson in fact ensured his players came into a happy and positive camp. He would sometimes deliberately make himself the fall guy, practicing his French on the overseas players, often to howls of laughter.

Solskjaer also wants to be that grand overseer but there are doubts from senior players in the squad, particularly the expensive imports, that the coaches he relies upon are up to the job.

First-team coach Kieran McKenna is 35 and has a background in academy football. His knowledge isn’t questioned but lacks the gravitas to excite some of the biggest names in the game.

‘You can’t have people learning on a job,’ summed up Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher

Former United midfielder Paul Ince was more brutal: ‘You’ve got an under-23s coach (McKenna), Michael Carrick – no coaching experience. Mike Phelan, I don’t know what he does.

‘That is Ole’s coaching staff. Compare that with the world-class players you’ve got in the team.’

There are concerns at United that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's coaching staff are too inexperienced

There are concerns at United that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s coaching staff are too inexperienced

Ronaldo also benefited from Rene Meulensteen (left) working one-on-one to harness his potential

Carlos Queiroz (right) had managed in four continents before his two spells as Fergie's No 2

Sir Alex Ferguson had the likes of Rene Meulensteen (left) and Carlos Quieroz (right) with him

Like Solskjaer, Carrick won numerous trophies as a United player. But working with the first team as a coach is the former midfielder’s first job in football since retiring.

Phelan is a nod to the glorious past and he was Ferguson’s last assistant manager before retirement. Though he is a visible presence on matchdays, Phelan himself admits his current role is more as a bridge between different departments than day-to-day dealing with players.

‘One of my strengths might be listening,’ he says. ‘I’ve listened to a lot of things, not just to football coaches, I listen to what is going on in the organisation of the club and get involved in that.’

For Ronaldo, it is a far cry from learning from Queiroz who had managed in four continents including the Portugal and South African national teams before his two spells as Fergie’s No 2 at Old Trafford.

He also benefited from Meulensteen working one-on-one to harness his potential. ‘He was very talented when he came but I think he was the player I did the most sessions with individually, because he felt it made him better,’ recalls Meulensteen.

Specialist set-piece coach Eric Ramsay was hired from Chelsea to great acclaim but United are yet to score from a corner or free-kick in the Premier League this season and have conceded three – the same as Newcastle. Some of the players are thought to be still convinced. 

United's Carrington training ground is outdated compared to other Premier League facilities

United’s Carrington training ground is outdated compared to other Premier League facilities

Leicester are the latest top-flight club to open a lavish and expensive new training ground

Leicester are the latest top-flight club to open a lavish and expensive new training ground 

Besides a drop in coaching knowhow, Ronaldo might have noticed the facilities at United, while still impressive, are no longer world-beating. 

When Carrington opened in 2000, Fergie was like a proud parent, showing friends and colleagues around the establishment. For him, it was a long-term benefit of the success he had brought United on the pitch.

Carrington needs improvements and there are hopes to expand changing facilities, offices, gyms, catering and car parking

Carrington needs improvements and there are hopes to expand changing facilities, offices, gyms, catering and car parking

But 20 years later, the stadium and even training facility is looking a little tired.

Old Trafford has had rats, a leaky roof and decaying paintwork. Manchester City players can stay overnight before home games at their Etihad Campus facility, Leicester and Tottenham players can relax by playing golf after training without having to get in their cars first.

United spent £20million on Old Trafford last summer, improving and enlarging the dressing-rooms, installing new floodlights and relaying the pitch.

But Carrington, which is the players’ daily place of work, needs improvements. Planning applications were submitted to Trafford Council for an all-seater stand and LED floodlights so pitches can be used more often.

There are hopes to expand changing facilities, offices, gyms, catering and car parking to keep up with what Premier League rivals now have to offer. Given that Leicester have spent £100million on a new training facility, it will be interesting to see what the Glazers invest.

It is believed one of the reasons Manchester United women’s manager Casey Stoney left the club is because her team sometimes had to work their training schedule at Carrington around what the men’s team were doing, had a 10-minute walk to the nearest toilet and found the gym out of date.

Old Trafford has had rats, a leaky roof and decaying paintwork and is starting to look tired

Old Trafford has had rats, a leaky roof and decaying paintwork and is starting to look tired

The roof leaked amid a heavy downpour of rain before United played Manchester City in 2019

It is a problem that has occurred before - notably when Old Trafford hosted Olympic football in 2012

United fans often complain about the leaky roof at Old Trafford – it was particularly bad when there was heavy downpour ahead of the Manchester derby (left) in 2019, while fans watching Olympic football in 2012 (right) were also caught out by it

Old Trafford has had problems with mice before and the rodents have been seen on the pitch

Old Trafford has had problems with mice before and the rodents have been seen on the pitch

Solskjaer has escaped the madhouse this week to go home to Norway with his family during the international break. There are a number of high-profile United players not on duty for their countries including Jadon Sancho and Donny van de Beek but after the City disappointment, maybe the manager decided a bit of time and space was best for everyone.

Commercially, Ed Woodward has kept United at the higher echelons of the world game despite not winning the Premier League since Ferguson retired in 2013, or the Champions League since Ronaldo’s first spell.

This season they began a £45million-a-year deal with software firm TeamViewer to sponsor the team shirts – an impressive amount given the Covid crisis.

Woodward promised to go after the European Super League fiasco but there are now talks about him continuing in some consultancy role.

United estimate they have a billion fans worldwide but sooner or later a lack of success is going to start denting that number. If you see a child every day, you don’t notice they are growing but someone who hasn’t seen them for six months will notice right away.

After a 12-year absence, Ronaldo can see the differences in the post-Ferguson United more clearly than anyone.

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