CRISTIANO Ronaldo was regularly compared with Lionel Messi. Now he looks more like Harry Maguire, a listing Manchester United vessel among nifty sampans.
There was a time, not very long ago in fact, when Ronaldo seemed otherworldly, impossibly sculpted, ridiculously handsome and driven like a snow plough through a blizzard. Nothing was stopping him. He was a bronzed colossus, as if his flawless frame was lifted, abs and all, from ancient mythology.
Maguire was known as "Slabhead" among his team-mates.
One looked like the boy next door. One looked like the boy from the next planet. Different stratosphere. Different species. Different careers.
And yet, somehow, their careers have merged. Benched by United but picked for their respective countries, Ronaldo and Maguire are staring at each other from the same crossroads, wondering whether to stay or go as their club vehicle splutters.
Ronaldo’s journey ahead is a little less bumpy, at least from an international standpoint. Ronaldo is Portugal. Fernando Santos, the nominal Portugal manager, has an unusual relationship with his striker. A ventriloquist and his dummy come to mind.
Watching an injured Ronaldo bark orders from the bench – and Santos mimicking his captain’s elaborate gestures like a toddler learning a new nursery rhyme – remains the overriding memory of the Euro 2016 final.
Even a bloodied nose could not remove the 37-year-old from Portugal’s recent 4-0 win against the Czech Republic. Ronaldo effectively picks himself until Qatar 2022 and then things get a little complicated. He may need a new home at club level.
His two-year United contract ends after this season. An option to extend for a third year is included if all parties agree. Ronaldo may not. He still covets regular Champions League football and a shot at Euro 2024.
He may not get either if he stays at United. Regular football of any kind is no longer possible. After the 0-4 debacle against Brentford, Erik ten Hag began the culling exercise that he’d probably hankered for since arriving.
Ronaldo was wallowing in self-denial, unwilling to accept his age and the loss of leading-man status and refusing to accept the paternalistic bit parts. He’s moved into his Tom Cruise phase, minus the Botox and the disturbing ability to hang upside down in a plane.
But Cruise is still box office, as long as he panders to the current audience’s obsession with nostalgia and stays within his sandbox (action movie sequels.) Ronaldo could do the same. Accept the body clock. Acknowledge the youthful competition. Stick to the tried and tested (same role, but fewer appearances every year) and wind down gracefully.
Ironically, the Theatre of Dreams may still be the best option for the incorrigible showman. A January departure means a transfer fee for a pensionable stop-gap and a free deal in the summer means exorbitant wages for a 38-year-old striker. Champions League contenders will prove hard to come by.
But ten Hag is short of striking alternatives. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are ahead of Ronaldo in the pecking order, but the fragile forwards are no strangers to the treatment table. The adjusted narrative is made for the old gunslinger to swagger into the Last Chance Saloon and make off with the headlines, occasionally, if he’s willing to make the mindset adjustments. He cannot be No.1 anymore.
Maguire deserves a dignified restoration
Poor Maguire, on the other hand, cannot even be a No.2. Ronaldo is still in the picture, to a degree, but Maguire has slipped from United’s canvas altogether, a maligned scapegoat of a club’s decay. The incessant, targeted abuse was excessive – as Nemanja Matic recently pointed out – but it still feels like a long way back for the lost defender.
The character actor analogy doesn’t work with Maguire either. He can’t pop in for scene-stealing cameos. As captain and main centre-back, he’s expected to mount the Old Trafford production on his shoulders and carry it through. Bit-part defenders do not last long.
Even England manager Gareth Southgate, a Maguire loyalist, has addressed the paradox. Maguire won every one of his senior caps in the Southgate era, but an international manager cannot pick an unpicked player at club level.
It’s complicated, for Southgate and Maguire, like Dr Frankenstein admitting there may be flaws in his creation. The former England centre-back helped to construct the current one, not quite in Southgate’s image as a player, but certainly in his ideal as a manager.
Under Southgate, Maguire was protected in a risk-averse environment, surrounded by extra bodies, one in midfield, sometimes two in defence, but there was usually cover for any lapses in concentration or speed. The cautious template rarely raised pulses, but it elevated the Three Lions to a World Cup semi-final and a European Championship final in consecutive tournaments.
Southgate’s system carried Maguire along, only for the industrious centre-back to be ruthlessly exposed by faster, pressing opponents in the English Premier League. Domestic football has moved on.
And ten Hag appears ready to move on too. He dropped Maguire and Ronaldo after the Brentford loss and United went on to win four in a row. Conversely, England’s defeat against Italy left Maguire with another unwanted stat. Of the four games he’s started for club and country this season, he’s lost them all.
United can’t win with Maguire. And Maguire can’t win with anyone. Statistics can always be twisted (the centre-back was dependable against Italy), but his reputation is tarnished nonetheless.
Maguire’s questionable positioning and his lack of speed are not new revelations, but Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez have excelled in both areas for United. Martinez, in particular, has allayed fears over his diminutive stature with several commanding displays.
Ironically, Maguire has age over Ronaldo, but not time. He’s only 29, but the younger man must arrest the decline in both reputation and performance quickly, before the perception of inherent weakness sticks.
Ronaldo’s legacy is assured, wherever he ends up. But Maguire is currently the man with no name, no standing, just a figure of fun, an updated meme with endless possibilities.
And that’s unfair. At the 2018 World Cup, Maguire spearheaded England’s PR overhaul. Like his colleagues, Slabhead was humble, relatable and likeable. He made the Three Lions fun again.
And while he benefited from the collective goodwill that surrounded the England camp then, he has come to symbolise United's long-standing problems now.
Maguire deserves a dignified restoration, of sorts, just as Ronaldo hopes to end his career on his terms.
But both men are unlikely to get what they want if they stay at United.
Maguire deserves a dignified restoration, of sorts, just as Ronaldo hopes to end his career on his terms. But both men are unlikely to get what they want if they stay at United.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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