When Cristiano Ronaldo went round Fraser Forster after latching onto Jadon Sancho’s perfect pass it looked like the goal drought was over.
The forward with more than 800 career goals to his name is yet to score in 2022 and having done the hard work by going round Forster he fluffed his lines again. A weak finish gave Romain Perraud time to get back and clear the ball a couple of yards away from the goalline.
For a player who has his own trademark goal celebration, his own museum and a penchant for posing topless on Instagram, a suggestion of a crisis of confidence doesn’t quite feel right, but in front of goal things suddenly aren’t coming naturally to Ronaldo.
There was another example later in the first half. Again Sancho was the architect, driving forward down the left and clipping a cross to Ronaldo at the far post. The unstoppably ruthless finisher would have fired a first-time volley back across goal on his right foot in his prime.
Instead, Ronaldo sought to control the ball, delayed the shot again, cut back onto his left foot and saw the chance to get away from him. He looked frustrated at his lack of conviction when the posts were appearing.
Chances are coming and going for Ronaldo at quite the right time. There were 10 shots without scoring against Middlesbrough and it’s now nine hours since he last scored, in the 3-1 win against Burnley.
The lack of goals are clearly problematic in a struggling team for them. In only three of Ralf Rangnick’s 13 games in charge have they scored more than eleven and those fixtures couldn’t have been much kinder. Ronaldo was signed to be the talisman of this team and at the moment that isn’t happening.
There are other concerns around Ronaldo as well, however. He was caught offside several times against Southampton and was so far beyond the last man for setting up Paul Pogba’s disallowed goal that is difficult to understand how he’d managed to mistime a run so badly.
This is becoming a recurring theme. He turned 37 last weekend and it’s inevitable there will be a slowing progress, but to compensate for the reduction in pace it can be tempting to start making runs earlier. Is Ronaldo sensing that his power might be on the wane?
It would be foolish to write off a player with his record but United aren’t getting value for money at the moment. Had Edinson Cavani not cried off on Saturday morning he would have almost certainly come on for Ronaldo at some point.
A return of eight goals in 20 Premier League isn’t what United would have expected from this season. With Cavani leaving this summer Rangnick made it clear on Friday that a younger striker was a priority in the summer.
“This is obvious,” Rangnick said. “Edinson’s contract is running out in the summer and the club needs the best possible center forward. This is an obvious one. I think everyone is aware of that.”
Cavani will turn 35 tomorrow and United’s two strikers have a combined age of 72. Ronaldo has a year left on his contract but do they need a younger center forward ready to take over from him in 2023 or is a replacement required this summer? On recent evidence, it’s no guarantee that Ronaldo should continue to lead this attack into his 39th year.
Erling Haaland is an obvious target, although United’s hopes of completing that deal must be hanging by a thread given their flirtation with failing to qualify for the Champions League. If that happens Ronaldo might yet make this decision for the club.