It should have been a wholly positive evening for Manchester United. Having ridden their luck at times, their attackers had sliced through Brentford to score three eye-catching goals and take three important points.
Improbably given all their recent issues, Ralf Rangnick’s side could finish the weekend in fourth place if they beat West Ham on Saturday and other results go their way. Nobody would complain if they finished the season there.
But Manchester United is always a soap opera and the headlines were stolen instead by Cristiano Ronaldo and his stroppy reaction to being substituted for Harry Maguire with 20 minutes left.
Cristiano Ronaldo was visibly angry at Ralf Rangnick’s decision to bring him off at Brentford
The forward clearly felt he was denied the chance to score with the game breaking open
He sat there on the steps to the away dug-out, moaning to anyone who would listen about being taken off as Rangnick tried to shut up shop by bringing on an extra defender.
It didn’t help that Marcus Rashford rounded off a very good counter-attack a few minutes later. Ronaldo no doubt felt he could have scored it.
And so the debate begins all over again – is Ronaldo a help to United or a hindrance? Would they actually be better off without him or is this simply disrespectful to one of the greatest players of all time?
First, the case for Ronaldo’s defence. While 14 goals and three assists in 22 appearances since returning is below the levels we’ve come to expect of him, they have come at important moments.
Ronaldo sat on the steps rather than in a seat among the other players after coming off
The Portuguese forward then moved up to sit in a chair but was unable to disguise his disgust
Ronaldo at Man United this season
Without his six goals in the Champions League group stage, including a 95th-minute winner against Villarreal, one in the 81st minute at home to Atalanta and his 91st-minute equaliser out in Italy, United would have crashed out.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was axed anyway but imagine the even deeper sense of despondency around the club if they only had Europa League football next month rather than an intriguing tie with Atletico Madrid.
He’s scored some important goals in the Premier League as well, helping to earn wins against West Ham, Arsenal and Norwich.
It’s a bit of a stretch to say United would be languishing in mid-table without these interventions but they certainly wouldn’t be within touching distance of the top four, something pretty miraculous given their generally poor performances.
But Ronaldo has always had that match-winning quality. Indeed, he’s scored decisive late goals so often in the past it’s become kind of inevitable. United expected to benefit from this when they brought him back and have done.
While the 36-year-old hasn’t exactly been dragging United to victory in every game, that ability to conjure a bit of magic when it’s most needed remains undiminished. United will need it at the business end of the season.
Ronaldo’s match-winning quality remains undiminished, as shown by his 95th-minute winner against Villarreal in the Champions League
He then repeated the feat against Atalanta at Old Trafford in a thrilling 3-2 win in October
Something else that should be a positive is Ronaldo’s high standards rubbing off on every other member of the squad.
Initially, there seemed to be a kind of awe towards him. When Ronaldo passed on dessert the night before one of his first games, everyone else felt guilt-tripped into skipping the cake and cream too.
Ronaldo doesn’t give too many interviews but his message is typically powerful when he does speak.
It’s why when he said last week that it’s unacceptable for Manchester United to finish outside the top three in the Premier League, plenty of fans nodded in agreement.
Such statements should have a galvanising effect in the dressing room, serving as a call to arms to team-mates who have perhaps lowered standards or been too comfortable for too long.
In total, Ronaldo has scored 14 goals since his return, including eight in the Premier League
But he has also been rightly criticised for negative body language and throwing tantrums
Man United fixtures
Premier League unless stated
Saturday West Ham (H)
February 4 Middlesbrough (H)
FA Cup fourth round
February 8 Burnley (A)
February 12 Southampton (H)
February 20 Leeds United (A)
February 23 Atletico Madrid (A)
Champions League last-16, first leg
It’s only natural that Ronaldo should measure the current state of affairs at United against his experience during the Sir Alex Ferguson years when trophy-winning was a habit.
The problem is the flipside to all that. Things at United ain’t what they used to be and the decline in standards on and off the field in the 12 years he was away (or at least post-2013) has shocked and frustrated Ronaldo.
Though supremely fit, Ronaldo is 36 and sadly won’t go on forever. He signed a two-year contract but reports suggest Ronaldo will leave in the summer if United fail to make the Champions League for next season.
You can’t blame him for not wanting to waste a year slumming it in the Europa League when plenty of leading clubs would still sign him.
His various tantrums this season – of which Wednesday night was the latest – is the consequence of this frustration at United’s drop in standards.
Ronaldo has made a habit of storming off down the tunnel at the final whistle, not even having the respect to shake hands with the opposition or applaud United’s fans.
These hissy fits often overshadow the game itself and just add to the sense of disharmony and disfunction at United.
Player body language has become a big theme of United’s recent struggles and Ronaldo has been as culpable as anyone else, looking downcast and waving his arms in annoyance at team-mates when things go wrong.
Ronaldo stormed straight down the tunnel after the draw with Everton back in October
The Portuguese did likewise after United dropped two points at Newcastle in December
Gary Neville described United’s players as ‘whingebags’ and you imagine Ronaldo wasn’t far from the forefront of his mind when he said it.
Another negative was the whole debate over Ronaldo’s perceived lack of effort when it came to tracking back and helping out the midfield and the defence.
Pundits were baffled as to why someone who prides himself on his fitness levels wasn’t willing to put in a sprint to aid his team-mates. Some suggested United were carrying a player in every game.
In reality, he’s never done it, so why are people surprised? Even Rangnick, who places such emphasis on a high press, isn’t going to be able to change him now.
More alarming should be his output in the attacking third. In Premier League games, Ronaldo has created just 12 chances in 17 games, played two through balls and has a shot conversion of 13.33 per cent from 60 attempts.
Ronaldo has been criticised for a perceived lack of effort in tracking back to help out the team
Another factor is how United’s team had to be altered in order to accommodate Ronaldo, who expects to play in every game when fit as a centre forward.
The chance to bring him back to Old Trafford was too good to resist but it meant Solskjaer effectively had to rip up the tactical plans he’d made for the season.
It’s not been great for Edinson Cavani, who’d been persuaded to stay in the summer before Ronaldo came and is still a brilliant performer, but was squeezed out (even before his injury lay-off).
There’s also an argument that Ronaldo’s presence has stifled the influence of United’s principal matchwinner, Bruno Fernandes.
In so many games, they’re both trying so hard to be the main man that things can become confused.
Edinson Cavani was pushed out of the centre forward position to accommodate Ronaldo
It didn’t escape anyone’s notice that in Ronaldo’s absence at Aston Villa last weekend, Fernandes scored twice and ran the show for United.
In 15 league games alongside Ronaldo, Fernandes has managed just two goals. In four league games without Ronaldo, he has scored five goals. You could deduce from those stats that Ronaldo is stifling Fernandes.
But it’s obviously more complex than that. Rangnick, to his credit, has abandoned his default 4-2-2-2 formation in favour of the 4-2-3-1 United were more familiar with under Solskjaer.
That should allow Fernandes to feel more comfortable in his No 10 role, give United greater width to suit the strengths of most of their attackers, and give Ronaldo more service.
There’s still so much to play for this season with United fighting on in three competitions. They could easily still end up finishing fourth and win a piece of silverware.
Fernandes and Ronaldo both want to be United’s match-winner, leading to complications
Fernandes scored twice at Aston Villa last weekend with Ronaldo sidelined through injury
But Rangnick needs quite a lot to click in order for that to happen. United are still too reliant on the saves of David de Gea to keep them in games – he was their saviour yet again at Brentford.
The German coach is usually brutally honest and he explained afterwards that Ronaldo was effectively taken off for the good of the team as they didn’t wish to surrender a two-goal lead for the second time in five days.
Half an hour later Ronaldo had tweeted: ‘3 important points! Well done lads’.
Whether Ronaldo is a positive or a negative for United should be judged in the fullness of time. The jury remains out.
What is for sure is that Rangnick and United need him to stop attention-seeking with these needless tantrums, drive up standards in the dressing room and concentrate on supplying that match-winning X-factor on a more regular basis.