Manchester United return to Aston Villa on Sunday for the first time since Cristiano Ronaldo played his final game for the club.
The Portuguese superstar who had been cast aside by Erik ten Hag just weeks prior, was asked to provide the Red Devils with leadership as captain in the absence of a suspended Bruno Fernandes.
What followed was a typically petulant performance by Ronaldo – which had become a theme of his second stint at the team – as they suffered a 3-1 defeat to Villa in Unai Emery’s first game in charge, back in November 2022.
Since then, the Portuguese superstar has rediscovered his scoring touch, ending 2023 as the top scorer across the calendar year, with 44 goals for new club Al-Nassr and an additional 10 for his country. He also topped the world’s highest-paid footballer list last year with an estimated earning of £214million.
United meanwhile improved for the remainder of the season after Ronaldo’s exit but have declined this term. As things stand, they are no better off now than when he left the club.
Man United return to Villa Park for the first time since Cristiano Ronaldo’s last game for the club
Ronaldo captained the side but delivered a petulant performance in a 3-1 defeat to Villa
Ronaldo though has rediscovered his scoring touch since he left United for Saudi side Al-Nassr
Despite signs of improvement last season, United are currently no better off now than when Ronaldo left the club – with Ten Hag’s side eighth in the league ahead of their return to Villa
When Ronaldo left the club, the reaction to Ten Hag’s handling of the situation was widely commended – as he put down a marker to show that it didn’t matter who you were, it is the Dutchman who runs the show.
And results on the field improved after his departure. The club were fifth after their 3-1 loss to Villa on November 22, and finished the campaign in third place – 14 points off champions Manchester City.
They also won the Carabao Cup and reached the final of the FA Cup – where local rivals City also hoisted the trophy on their way to repeating United’s 1999 Treble.
However, much like what happened under Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – there has been a decline at Old Trafford following an initial improvement under a new manager.
The Red Devils are sixth in the standings – eight points behind Sunday’s opponents Villa, and 13 already off league leaders Liverpool with 15 matches still to play.
They have already lost as many games this campaign as last (nine) with 14 defeats in all competitions – including four in the Champions League, where they finished bottom of a group including Bayern Munich, Copenhagen and Galatasaray.
Injuries have certainly been a strong contributing factor. But other players have seen a drop-off in form, some have fallen-out-of-favour with Ten Hag, while other teams have caught up with and surpassed them, rather than the Red Devils close up on those who finished above them last term.
Andre Onana has not shown himself to be an improvement on David de Gea as yet, with the Cameroonian shot-stopper’s ball-playing reputation not living up to what was expected.
Ten Hag has fallen out with Jadon Sancho this season while players including Marcus Rashford (left) have seen a decline in form this term after they finished third in the league last campaign
Raphael Varane is among the big-name players expected to leave this summer, with the French World Cup winner dropping behind Harry Maguire and Jonny Evans at times this season
Injuries have not helped United’s cause with Lisandro Martinez in particular a big absence
Rasmus Hojlund’s recent improvement in front of goal could give United some confidence going into the remainder of the season
Mason Mount has not got going since his £60m move, mainly because of injuries, though Rasmus Hojlund is starting to show what he is capable of after it took until his 15th Premier League appearance – the Boxing Day 3-2 comeback win over Aston Villa – to score his first league goal.
Youngsters such as Kobbie Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho offer signs of promise for the future, though there are questions over the likes of Marcus Rashford and Anthony who have struggled this season.
Rashford scored 30 goals in 56 games last year, yet has just five in 28 so far this campaign.
Casemiro and Lisandro Martinez have both struggled with injuries while Raphael Varane looks set to be on his way out, with Harry Maguire and Jonny Evans playing ahead of the Frenchman at times this season.
Hojlund is finding his stride in attack, but in no other area of the pitch does it seem that United have made an improvement on last season.
United have seen an improvement to their Premier League win percentage since Ronaldo’s exit. In 40 league games with Ronaldo they walked away with three points in 50 per cent of games, while they have taken victory in 58 per cent of the 48 games since his exit.
The improvements to the likes of Aston Villa (pictured), Liverpool and Tottenham this season is a cause for concern for United – who finished behind Man City and Arsenal last term
Though those numbers do include the 2021-22 season where Ronaldo was arguably the only shining light in one of their worst ever Premier League campaigns, in a year where they were coached by Solskjaer and then interim coach Ralf Rangnick.
There have also been other players who have fallen out of favour with Ten Hag since Ronaldo.
The most famous case being Jadon Sancho, who publicly refuted Ten Hag’s claims that his performances in training wasn’t up to scratch and was then exiled from the squad and sent back on loan to Borussia Dortmund.
Ten Hag dropped Rashford from the starting XI against Wolves last season due to the forward’s punctuality. Though he started the England forward in the 4-3 win over the same side this month, after his drinking binge in Belfast – though he was fined £600,000.
Varane appears to be on his way out this summer, as does Anthony Martial who Ten Hag told to train alone before his recent groin surgery which will keep him out for most of the season.
United’s winning percentage in Premier League games has improved since Ronaldo’s exit compared to the Portuguese star’s second stint at the club – despite their struggles this term
Ten Hag’s position though could come under scrutiny if things don’t improve following Sir Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS’ arrival at the club
There are some fans who believe United should have done more to keep Ronaldo, especially thanks to his scoring form in Saudi Arabia. Arsenal fan Piers Morgan, who conducted the explosive interview with the Portuguese forward which led to his Old Trafford exit, has repeatedly insisted that the Red Devils have made a mistake.
Ronaldo’s interview though left Ten Hag with no other option but to allow the wantaway forward to leave the club. So in that sense, United are better off without him.
But have United improved enough since he left is another question and one that could be determined by whether they improve enough to qualify for the Champions League.
Even if there has been an improvement, it has not been enough to suggest they are much better off than when they last travelled to Villa Park.
In fact, Villa have arguably made the bigger improvement since that day in November 2022. While league leaders Liverpool and Tottenham have compounded United’s problems with their own respective returns to form seeing them surpass the Red Devils.
If they can keep their players fit, and see the likes of Rashford return to form, then the Red Devils could still rescue a top-four spot if they can beat the likes of Aston Villa along the way.
Should United fail to have an improved second-half to the season, real questions will be asked about Ten Hag’s future at the club – particularly after the recent arrival of Sir Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS after they purchased a 25 per cent stake at Old Trafford.
Manchester United team that lost 3-1 to Aston Villa (November 6, 2022)
De Gea; Dalot, Martinez, Lindelof, Shaw; Eriksen, Casemiro, Van de Beek; Rashford, Garnacho, Ronaldo
Likely team for Sunday:
Onana; Dalot, Maguire, Varane, Shaw; Casemiro, Mainoo, Fernandes; Garnacho, Rashford; Hojlund