With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to forget just how close Cristiano Ronaldo was to wearing the blue shirt of Manchester City.
In the summer of 2021, having missed out on his number one target Harry Kane manager Pep Guardiola was in dire need of an option upfront.
City scoured the market for an alternative solution and found limited options available.
Forwards of the level required by the Catalan and his team were either too expensive or difficult to land.
But, as the summer transfer window came to a close, a shocking possibility arose. Cristiano Ronaldo wanted out from Juventus and, despite his well-established links to bitter rivals United, was willing to make the switch.
On social media Manchester United fans went into meltdown over the prospect of their former idol joining the team on the other side of the city.
He was being disowned by diehard supporters and there was a fierce debate over the impact it would have on his ‘legend’ status.
However, just as it appeared a deal was nearing, the situation flipped. Ronaldo was suddenly a certainty to join United instead.
It was ex-teammates and coaches of the Portuguese star who had convinced him at the 11th hour not to join City.
He arrived at Old Trafford on a two-year deal worth close to $50 million.
In his recent bombshell interview with Piers Morgan, Ronaldo explained just how near he’d been to the move.
“Honestly, it was close. They spoke a lot and Guardiola said two weeks ago that they tried hard to have me,” he told the media personality.
“But, as you know, my history is in Manchester United. Your heart, you’re feeling the way you did before, and it made the difference.”
He added that the intervention of his former boss Sir Alex Ferguson had been crucial.
“Sir Alex Ferguson was the key,” Ronaldo continued, “I spoke with him ‘[and] he said to me that ‘It’s impossible for you to come to Manchester City’. And I said ‘OK, Boss.’
“It was a good moment, nobody expected it. Things changed around in 72 hours.”
This version of events has been contested by City. Its response to the interview was to brief local journalists that the club was “interested in signing Ronaldo” but denied trying “as hard to bring him to the Etihad to the extent Ronaldo claims.”
The words of Pep Guardiola back in 2021 tell a slightly different story.
“Ronaldo will decide where he wants to play. Not Manchester City, not myself,” he said at the time
“These types of players decide. [Lionel] Messi decided to go to Paris, they knock on the door, they call.”
Those words sound almost painfully ironic now just over halfway through his two-year Manchester United deal, Ronaldo finds himself unemployed, the contract canceled after his explosive pre-World Cup interview.
Rather than dialing up whatever club he fancies turning out for, Ronaldo is left with pondering a move to Saudi Arabia, such is the lack of interest from European teams.
You can’t help but wonder how things would have panned out had he signed for City.
Ronaldo: Legend vs reality
Before he signed for United and indeed, one of the reasons City was linked with Ronaldo was because it was widely believed the Portuguese star had adapted his game from tricky winger to towering center forward.
While it is difficult to argue that his scoring record was anything other than that of a striker, positionally, as was quickly learned when he did arrive at United, he did not play through the middle.
Ronaldo instead preferred the outside left position, out on the wing he did rack up the goals but took up a spot in the team reserved normally for an exciting younger player.
Not only were talents like Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford moved to accommodate the new star, their form noticeably dropped.
At City, Ronaldo would have been jettisoning players from an already well-stocked position. Last season’s options included $100 million Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling.
Another myth that was shattered while his United career was in its infancy was about work rate.
When he signed the feeling was the Red Devils were acquiring the ultimate professional, a man whose dedication on and off the pitch would be infectious.
Then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said as much when the deal was announced.
“To have the desire and the ability to play at the top level for such a long period requires a very special person. I have no doubt that he will continue to impress us all and his experience will be so vital for the younger players in the squad,” he gushed.
It soon became clear during matches, the man in his late thirties did not have the thirst for closing down opponents that have come to characterize the modern game.
He might have been in peak physical condition, but that meant very little if he was unwilling to do the hard yards back toward his own goal.
The arrival of new coach Erik Ten Hag did little to help this, the former Ajax manager’s philosophy was built on suffocating opponents in possession.
Stories even emerged suggesting Ronaldo “pushed back on Ten Hag’s methods by questioning certain pressing drills” a move which got him cut from the team.
A key tenet of Manchester City’s tactical strategy is hard work off the ball and it’s hard to imagine a result other than what happened with Ten Hag occurring with Guardiola.
But, all of that said, it would be foolish to think City went into any deal with Ronaldo eyes closed.
Guardiola must have known he was unlikely to press and would be playing on the left side.
The coach’s most underrated quality is adaptability, from Robert Lewandoski to Andreas Iniesta, Arjen Robben to Raheem Sterling, the Catalan has got the best out of all different types of player in different systems.
City today plays a very different style to when he first took over or even compared with a few years ago.
You wouldn’t bet against him developing a system that got the best out of Ronaldo regardless of how much his move to United looks like a bullet dodged currently.