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You don’t need a soccer expert to know that losing 6-3 to your local rival is a disaster. Unfortunately for Erik ten Hag, that’s exactly what his Manchester United squad did on Sunday. The Red Devils were clearly second best, but there’s almost no value in assessing the match itself. Instead, let’s focus on Cristiano Ronaldo.

During the Manchester Derby, the Portuguese striker sat on the bench, even as the game slipped further and further out of reach. While that’s not exactly surprising — ten Hag has been trying to move on from Ronaldo — things took an unusual turn after the match. When speaking with the media, the manager explained that he left the star on the bench “out of respect.”

There’s plenty of room to debate the footballing merits of that decision. In terms of his squad management and credibility, though, ten Hag may have already painted himself into a risky corner.

Erik ten Hag kept Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench and offered a bizarre explanation after the match

Ahead of the 2022-23 season, the Premier League officially allowed its member clubs to make five substitutions during matches. While Erik ten Hag made full use of that power on Sunday, one big name remained on the bench.

Over the course of the drubbing, Victor Lindelof, Anthony Martial, Fred, Casemiro, and Luke Shaw came off the bench and entered the fray. Cristiano Ronaldo, however, never got his chance. The cameras kept panning to him sitting somberly on the sidelines, almost pairing the striker with Sir Alex Ferguson in the stands.

After the match, ten Hag explained why he never subbed the Portuguese forward on. If we take the manager at his word, it came down to respect (and a logistical concern).

“I wouldn’t bring him in out of respect for Cristiano, for his big career,” ETH explained (h/t ESPN). “The other thing was the advantage that I could bring on Anthony Martial. He needs the minutes, but I don’t want to point it out like that.”

On the surface, that sounds like an understandable, if somewhat strange, answer. Ronaldo is a living legend and a massive figure in the dressing room, so you don’t want to send him in to mop up during garbage time. When you parse the larger implications of the Dutchman’s quote, though, things become a bit trickier.

If Cristiano Ronaldo remains on the bench moving forward, ten Hag will seem like a liar

Manchester United striker Cristiano Ronaldo (L) and Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag (R).
Manchester United striker Cristiano Ronaldo and manager Erik ten Hag. | Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images, Michael Regan/Getty Images

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While it’s easy to just focus on the Xs and Os, an important part of managing is earning the respect of the squad. And while we’re not inside the Manchester United dressing room to know exactly how everyone feels, ten Hag’s comments seem to have set a risky precedent.

As I mentioned above, it’s reasonable to pay respect to Ronaldo. At the same time, though, saying that’s why he didn’t play suggests there’s no issue beyond game state. In reality, though, that’s clearly not the case. Ever since taking over, ten Hag hasn’t relied on the Portuguese forward, preferring more mobile strikers.

So, what happens next weekend when Manchester United face Everton (ignore the Europa League, since the starting 11 will change regardless)? While the Red Devils should win, let’s pretend it’s a close game heading into the final 20 minutes. If Ronaldo doesn’t play, then the substitution patterns weren’t really about respect and game situations; they were about tactics and United’s style of play. ETH would seem to be simply putting on a happier face for the media.

On the other side of the coin, let’s pretend that the game is out of reach one way or the other, and the manager still decides to bring the Portuguese striker onto the pitch (or, in a dramatic scenario, hypothetically hands Ronaldo a start). In that case, ten Hag could look weak and like he was pressured into changing his plans because of one influential player.

Either way, though, it’s easy to see how that could erode the squad’s trust in the manager. At the risk of making the easy comparison between two clubs in need of a rebuild, look at how Mikel Arteta handled things at Arsenal. When he decided that a player wasn’t part of the group, they were done, whether they were a young prospect or the club’s captain. That willingness to step up and make a decisive choice, it seems, helped earn him the respect and trust of his squad.

That’s all to say that, as manager, the Dutchman is paid to make massive decisions. If he’s so confident that Ronaldo isn’t the right man for this squad, he needs to stand by that. If he feels like the Portuguese isn’t a starter, but can come off the bench to help win games, then the striker needs to play in that role. Equivocating and floating somewhere in between the two points doesn’t help anyone.

And while it’s possible that Erik ten Hag is saying something different behind closed doors, publicly tying his substitution patterns to respect seems like a risky play. If he’s supposed to be the one guiding the rebuild, he can’t lose the dressing room mere months into the project.

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