Benching Cristiano Ronaldo made Manchester United better. Should Portugal follow suit at World Cup?

Cristiano Ronaldo played his 941st professional game last week in a secondary tournament he tried to shun, and at the auxiliary home of a Soviet-sympathizing club from an unrecognized breakaway state bordered by two of Europe's poorest countries.

Ronaldo, of course, never expected nor wanted his ebbing career to come to this, but here we are.

He was dueling with Sheriff Tiraspol on Thursday because Manchester United, with its season careening toward wreckage last month, benched Ronaldo and immediately rebounded. The Red Devils buzzed around Old Trafford in his absence, beating Liverpool, Southampton, Leicester City and Arsenal, and exemplifying what team success in modern soccer looks like.

Ronaldo, meanwhile, has been relegated to Europa League duties and uneventful late-game cameos. Two months ago, he requested a transfer that implied he was better than Man United; now, it has become clear that United — like the dozens of clubs who declined to sign Ronaldo this summer — is better without him.

So Ronaldo, at age 37, in his 21st pro season, is being forced to begin a final chapter that he does not yet want to write. The gap between his celebrity and his on-field impact grows wider by the week. He has been deemed a burden and a liability by a sport that increasingly outpaces him. His days among the club game's elite have seemingly come and gone.

But in November, the club game will pause. Curtains will spread. One last stage will present itself.

And Ronaldo will step out onto it, at his fifth World Cup, with one last opportunity to rise to one last massive occasion — unless, that is, Portugal decides that it, too, is better off without its biggest star.

Ronaldo's decline

Cristiano Ronaldo built the bulk of his legend by evolving from a flashy winger into a ruthless penalty-box assassin. Throughout his nine years at Real Madrid, he scored 310 of his 339 open-play goals from inside the area. He scored 80 with his left foot and 70 with his head, in all phases of attacking play, against all types of opponents.

For all his glam and showmanship, he became a relatively simple superstar, in that he had simply mastered soccer's most valuable skill. At the head of a humming Real Madrid team, he trimmed tertiary tasks out of his repertoire, and honed in on the one of utmost importance, goalscoring. He hunted shots incessantly. Since 2010, he has taken roughly 400 more of them than Lionel Messi and 900 more than Robert Lewandowski — the two players who come closest, though not really close at all, to touching his tally, per Stats Perform via ESPN.

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo stands on the pitch during the Euro 2020 group B qualifying soccer match between Portugal and Lithuania at the Algarve stadium outside Faro, Portugal, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)
Cristiano Ronaldo has captained the Portugal national team for over a decade, and at three World Cups. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Along the way, soccer began to phase out one-dimensional players. Ronaldo's primary dimension, though, remained peerless and therefore invaluable. It's what Juventus paid $117-plus million for, and what Man United craved. It's why conventional wisdom still considered Ronaldo a top-five player in the world as recently as 2020, and a top-10 player last year.

But as his early-30s bled into mid-30s, otherworldly production quietly receded to elite production, and then to merely very good production. His non-penalty-goal-per-90 rate fell from .90 at Real to .56 at Juventus. His assists-per-90 also fell from .29 to .16 at Juve, and then to .08 last season at Man United.

And that's when the lack of everything else became glaring. Over the past 365 days, according to FBref data, compared to his positional peers throughout the 98 clubs in Europe's big five leagues, Ronaldo ranks in the 43rd percentile in dribbles completed, in the 32nd percentile in assists, in the 9th percentile in tackles, and at the very bottom of the entire list in pressures.

He is some combination of unwilling and unable to press, and that's why Manchester United manager Erik Ten Hag cannot use him. It's why the countless Champions League clubs to which he was offered did not want him. It's one of many reasons Juventus and United got worse after he arrived.

The question now is whether Ronaldo's country, which he has captained for over a decade, will try to preempt its own decline by minimizing his role.

And the answer is very likely no.

"I have absolutely no worries about Ronaldo's lack of playing time for Manchester United," Portugal head coach Fernando Santos said last week. "I don't think anyone has any doubts that Ronaldo continues to be of great importance to the national team."

Why Ronaldo will still lead Portugal

Ronaldo, clearly, still has qualities that 99% of clubs would welcome. He can still strike a ball as well as anybody. His anticipatory instincts are still elite, even if his first step has slowed.

His impediment to a starting role at Champions League contender is that the top 1% of clubs can recruit strikers who have those same qualities and many more. National teams, though, can't do that. Santos must work with what he has. And what he has is a squad with no other true No. 9.

He has Diogo Jota, but prefers to play Jota on the left wing.

He has Joao Felix, but Felix prefers to play as a second striker, underneath someone like Ronaldo.

He has Andre Silva, but Silva has scored just 11 goals in 40 Bundesliga appearances for RB Leipzig. Santos didn't even call Silva into Portugal's latest training camp, its last before the World Cup.

Santos will ride with Ronaldo because he has no replacement, and also because his system will conceal some of Ronaldo's flaws. It rarely requires a coordinated high press. It is far more conservative than Ten Hag's, and it represents an implicit acknowledgement that international soccer is often less about systems or patterns and more about moments.

Ronaldo, for all his faults, remains a conjurer of moments. He is an individual who can enliven a stale game, and that is so often what World Cups call for.

"Cristiano is always Cristiano," the 22-year-old Felix said last month on a Zoom call with U.S. reporters. "Even if in the club he's not playing — playing for the national team, it's always different."