Low-key Ronaldo theatre gives way to second act of beautiful precision | Barney Ronay
Money won’t make you happy. Money won’t solve all your problems. But it certainly helps. Or at least, it does when that weekly debit comes in exchange for talent on the Cristiano Ronaldo scale.
Ronaldo was sensational here, producing a performance that seemed to step outside the doom-laden tides of the last week, most notably in a startling finish for Manchester United’s opening goal.
One of the criticisms of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s time as United manager is that this has been an era of moments, of disconnected flickers. Well, whatever the ultimate fate of Solskjær’s team, this was a moment that will stand in its own distinct space, a little breath of sporting divinity.
As Spurs and Manchester United kicked off Ronaldo had gone five weeks, or £2.5m in salary payments, since his last Premier League goal. At times the Ronaldo presence has seemed to weigh heavily around Solskjær’s efforts to re-gear his team. And really, how do you solve a problem like Cristiano? What is the managerial calculus that can make sense of a static 36-year-old superstar centre-forward?
It felt significant that Solskjær went back to something familiar in north London, seeking out the muscular solidity of his best period as Manchester United manager. Perhaps he was blessed a little by the absence of Paul Pogba, who has, if we believe his advertising, “reinvented” the role of midfielder; although not, it would seem, in a good way.
At the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium Solskjær ripped out the pages of last week’s playbook (“front foot”, press high, We Are Manchester United). The back four became a three. The front four gave way to a front two plus floating Bruno Fernandes. Against better opponents there is a danger this formation might become “split”. But they were more than enough for a horribly flaccid Tottenham. Served by that hard working rump, Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani were irresistible at times.
It took a while. In a battle of two teams struggling vaguely to become something, Ronaldo looked like another dissonant element for the opening half an hour. He walked urgently. He maintained that concerned, slightly pitying facial expression. Around the half hour mark there were moments of low-key CR7 theatre as a flick close to goal went astray and Ronaldo threw his arms in the air, dropped his head, and stood for a moment, a wonderfully tender tableau of misery.
And yet, just as this United team seemed once again to be drifting, passing with purpose but without incision, Ronaldo produced a moment of startling purity.
It was one of those interventions that seems to come from a different game, a different day, like the hand of some minor sporting deity reaching down on to this muddled chess board and chucking a bolt of clear blue light through it.
The goal wasn’t just about Ronaldo. It was also about Spurs, who had been shuffling from side to side long enough to become a little sleepy on their feet. Sensing that slackness, Fernandes had time to produce his own spark of magic, looking up to see the first shiver of movement from Ronaldo, and getting a little flicker of what was about to happen before anyone else inside the stadium.
The pass from Fernandes was a delicious thing, nudged and floated and back spun just enough to tease Ben Davies into dithering and then pedalling back, never at any stage reading its arc.
In that moment you got a glimpse of basic human difference. Those yellow boots were already snapping at the turf, the Ronaldo brain crunching the numbers on drop and drift and flight. As the pass fell Ronaldo was already springing off his left foot, body angled, taking the ball flush as it appeared late in his vision and spanking it – so delicate, so severe – back across and into the far corner.
It was a stunning moment of craft and third-eye vision, the kind of intervention that draws gasps and gurgles, and a sense in that little flicker of what it must be like to see the game with the benefit of that two-second delay button, to find those streams intersecting with such beautiful precision.
Spurs looked a little stunned. In truth they had all afternoon. Ronaldo has been criticised for a lack of urgency. But Harry Kane was barely present on the material plane here, glimpsed only in patches like some vanishing Victorian garden sprite.
With 64 minutes gone United’s three attackers made the second goal. Again it was sublime, Fernandes took the ball and fed Ronaldo, who Ronaldo-chopped his way inside then produced a lovely nudged through-pass that put Cavani in on goal. That was only ever ending one way. The finish was pure high-spec calf-leather turbo-engineered luxury.
And so Solskjær’s Manchester United takes another turn on its picaresque journey. A team of this quality really should expect to swat aside these impoverished Spurs. But there was at least a sense of clarity here, moments of light that might yet become a spark.