Erik ten Hag has kept a straight face and played an even straighter bat to questions about Cristiano Ronaldo this summer.
From Bangkok to Oslo, Melbourne to Manchester, Ten Hag has toed the party line and said all the right things about his absent star.
Ronaldo missed Manchester United’s pre-season tour for family reasons, he explained. The player is not for sale and remains under contract.
New Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag (pictured) has kept a straight face and played an even straighter bat to questions about wantaway forward Cristiano Ronaldo, 37, this summer
No sooner has Ronaldo returned to training and made his first appearance of the summer, though, than Ten Hag’s patience is clearly wearing thin.
The 37-year-old’s early exit from Old Trafford before the end of Sunday’s friendly against Rayo Vallecano, after he was substituted at half-time, did not go down well with a manager who puts great stock by team spirit, discipline and time-keeping.
‘Unacceptable’ is how Ten Hag described it to Dutch television, probably an understatement.
He will not have been any happier at the way Ronaldo announced on social media that he would be in the team for the game (‘Sunday, the king plays’) having made it clear he does not want egos in his squad.
Or when Ronaldo appeared to take issue with his manager as he spoke to the team during a break in play.
No sooner has Portuguese star Ronaldo returned to training and made his first appearance of the summer, though, than Ten Hag’s patience is clearly wearing thin with the veteran (above)
Is the five-time Ballon d’Or winner trying to provoke Ten Hag into letting him leave? Certainly, United have grown weary of attempts by agent Jorge Mendes to orchestrate a move and there are concerns that Ronaldo is ‘playing up’, as former team-mate Gary Neville put it on Wednesday.
But United have remained steadfast and there is no sign of that changing, certainly while they do not have a genuine offer to consider. For now, Ten Hag must try to integrate Ronaldo into his plans while dealing with any challenge to his authority.
That was never in question on tour as the players spoke about the strict regime imposed by the new manager. Ten Hag, meanwhile, batted away questions over Ronaldo’s absence and future.
Nothing in his career in Holland could prepare him for the circus surrounding Ronaldo and Mendes. For a coach whose philosophy is based around order and control, it is the last thing Ten Hag needs.
How he and United handle it from here on could well define the Dutchman’s first season in charge.
Club icon and pundit Gary Neville (pictured) has said: ‘It’s unpalatable for me to watch, as an ex-Manchester United captain… You can’t have your star player in a club running the shop.’
If there is one thing that works in their favour, it is that Ronaldo is likely to fall into line if he has not got a move by the time the transfer window closes. His dedication means he is always likely to give 100 per cent on the pitch.
He wanted to play on Sunday and insiders say he has shown an excellent attitude in training, even staying behind for extra finishing practice with team-mates.
But Neville, for one, expects better from him. ‘Ronaldo’s achievements in football go beyond anything that anybody could wish for and imagine,’ he said.
‘But it’s unpalatable for me to watch, as an ex-Manchester United captain, and think that the star player is playing up. You can’t have your star player in a club running the shop.’
Ten Hag knows that too. But bringing Ronaldo to heel is easier said than done.