The first transfer window of Erik ten Hag’s reign has, to date, yielded only the arrival of Christian Eriksen on a free transfer and Tyrell Malacia, likely to be their back-up left-back in 2022-23, from Feyenoord. Their drawn-out pursuit of Barcelona midfielder Frenkie De Jong appears no nearer to a resolution.
And Ten Hag’s transfer plans have been dealt a further blow with reports that Cristiano Ronaldo wants out.
The new manager was said to have been content to strengthen other areas of his newly inherited squad this summer in the belief that Ronaldo would lead the line next season. But the 37-year-old five-time Ballon d’Or winner is perhaps more driven by personal legacy than any other player, and has apparently realised he cannot stomach a season outside the Champions League at this stage of his career and, as such, wants out.
So United, who begin their pre-season tour of Thailand and Australia next week, are left scrambling to fill the expected Ronaldo-shaped void in their attack while also, if their rumoured moves come to fruition, strengthening at centre-back, central midfield and right wing.
Here, we’ve picked out five viable Ronaldo replacements, each of whom offers abundant quality and could likely be acquired without De Jong-esque saga and expense.
A free agent after the expiration of his Juventus contract, Argentinian forward Paulo Dybala would provide the name value to excite fans and satisfy United’s commercial arm amid the likely loss of their most marketable star.
He is also a sublimely skilled footballer. The 28-year-old scored 115 goals in seven seasons with Juventus and boasts a medal collection that includes five Serie A titles.
Dybala’s best form has come when he has been deployed as the second striker in a front two. He is adept and playing between the lines, linking with colleagues and creating for others while also able to finish from a variety of angles and ranges with his left foot.
As Ronaldo’s replacement at United, he’d likely be required to play as the foremost attacker in a three-man frontline, and so he is not the smoothest tactical fit. But Dybala’s calibre is such that, for no transfer fee, he’d be a steal. And, in qualitative terms, he’s probably United’s best realistic option at this stage.
Any move for Bayer Leverkusen’s Patrik Schick would be complicated slightly by the fact the Czech Republic striker penned a new contract with the Bundesliga side after an outstanding 2021-22 campaign that saw him score 24 league goals from 27 appearances.
But the former Sampdoria forward, at 26, is approaching the peak of his powers. He can’t match Ronaldo for athleticism, lacking the Portuguese’s burst over short distances and gravity-defying spring, but he provides a similar physical presence, standing 6ft 3ins, while also possessing a deftness of touch that saw him likened to Dennis Bergkamp earlier in his career.
What’s more, Schick has the versatility to adapt to whatever role Ten Hag might envisage for him, while his time with RB Leipzig and Leverkusen will have equipped him well for the on- and off-ball tactical demands of United’s new Dutch coach.
Former Celtic striker Moussa Dembele has been linked with a switch to United in the past, and a move for the 25-year-old would make sense in light of a Ronaldo departure.
Dembele has suffered dips in form at times in his career to date, with a particular nadir coming just the season before last, when a loan move to Atletico Madrid yielded just seven total appearances and no goals.
But the Frenchman was back to his best last term, scoring 21 goals in 29 Ligue 1 games for Lyon. With his pace and finishing instincts, he’d make an exciting addition to United’s attack. What’s more, Dembele is likely to be gettable without Lyon demanding a bank-breaking fee. He was linked with a move to Galatasaray recently, with an £18m figure mooted.
Another option is to put faith in the returning Anthony Martial. The 26-year-old was sent out on loan to Sevilla last season, having fallen down the Old Trafford pecking order following a 2020-21 campaign in which he scored just four league goals and exuded a demeanour of disinterest.
As such, United fans might, understandably, greet the idea of restoring the Frenchman to the No.9 role with reticence. But if, as reports suggest, he has been energised by the arrival of Ten Hag, there is a hugely talented player to be unlocked once again.
Martial’s United career has flattered to deceive. He arrived as a costly 19-year-old whose stunning solo strike in his debut against Liverpool seemed a portent of greatness. Instead, he has failed to fulfil his immense potential, flitting between spells on the flank and through the middle, infrequently excelling in either.
But the 2019-20 season is hardly the distant past, and that was when Martial produced the best and most consistent form of his career, leading the line for United and scoring 23 goals as a third-place finish saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side comfortably qualify for the Champions League. That player still exists. Perhaps Ten Hag can locate him.