Another mess at Man Utd: Ronaldo bombshell rocks Ten Hag's transfer plans

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Cristiano Ronaldo Erik ten Hag Manchester United GFXGetty/GOAL

Cristiano Ronaldo has plunged Manchester United into a desperate search for a top-class striker in a shrinking transfer market and with time against them.

That is the most tangible damage caused by his decision to leave just a year after his emotional return to Old Trafford.

There are, of course, bigger questions about the reputational hit to United.

After all, Ronaldo is convinced he cannot win major honours with them – and that is not a good look for any club that considers itself among the biggest in the world.

However, the immediate concern for Erik ten Hag is the sudden change to his summer recruitment strategy.

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While United are adamant Ronaldo is not for sale, the expectation is that he will secure a move, meaning Ten Hag will have to bring forward his plans to introduce a new focal point for his attack.

The Dutchman knew this moment was coming – Ronaldo is 37 and does not suit the pressing football he intends to implement. He just hoped he could put it off for a while.

An out-and-out replacement for last season’s leading goal-scorer was set to be delayed until next summer – January at the earliest – after missing out on first choice, Darwin Nunez.

The Uruguayan was identified by Ten Hag and football director John Murtough before it quickly became clear he favoured a move to Liverpool.

Since then, United have focused their attention on more versatile forwards, with Ajax winger, Antony, their preferred target during this window.

While chief executive, Richard Arnold, insists the money is there for his new manager’s plans – a prolific goal-scorer will cost upwards of £70 million ($83m) at a time when United are already advanced in terms of the bulk of their business.

Tyrell Malacia has completed his £13m ($16m) move from Feyenoord. Christian Eriksen has agreed a three-year deal as a free agent, and will be among the highest earners in the squad.

Frenkie de Jong would cost £55m ($66m) up front if Barcelona belatedly agree to let him leave; Lisandro Martinez around £40m ($48m).

Antony has been valued as high as £69m – but United expect to be able to drive that figure down.

Either way, it does not leave a lot of room to move for the type of striker capable of leading the attack of one of Europe’s elite clubs.

Even if United have been left behind in the battle at the top in the Premier League – any transfers made this summer are designed to return them to contention for the biggest prizes.

That leaves them in the curious position of losing their star player because they cannot match his ambitions – while having to pay premium rates for the type of quality required to replace him.

Their situation has hardly been helped by the timing of Ronaldo’s bombshell.

Nunez has gone. Premier League-proven forwards in Gabriel Jesus and Richarlison have also moved to top four rivals Arsenal and Tottenham, while Raheem Sterling is set to join Chelsea.

Add to that Erling Haaland’s move to Manchester City and United are watching on as the five teams that finished above them last season add to their attacks.

That, of course, feeds into Ronaldo’s frustrations and concerns.

He has serious doubts about United’s ability to secure top four next season, let alone compete for the title.

Last season was evidence that even his enduring brilliance is not enough to turn them around.

He scored more Premier League goals than Harry Kane and Sadio Mane, 17, just five fewer than joint Golden Boot-winners Son Heung-Min and Mo Salah, in less appearances, yet United finished 13 points adrift of fourth-placed Spurs. Bruno Fernandes was the only other United player to reach double figures, with 10.

It is clear Ten Hag needs to address the number of goals in his squad – and, with or without Ronaldo, part of the solution will have to come from within.

Marcus Rashford is re-energised and needs a big season – preferably in a settled role on the left. Likewise, Jadon Sancho – last summer’s star signing until Ronaldo’s arrival.

Fernandes was as ineffective as he has been in a United shirt last term – while Eriksen will add goals directly, as well as through assists for others.

Ten Hag was already weighing up whether to become the latest manager to try to get a tune out of Anthony Martial.

He has been given pre-season to impress Ten Hag – but his future is in even more limbo now, with United unlikely to sanction a move until they know for certain what is happening with Ronaldo.

As well as cost, United’s main issue is a lack of realistic options.

It could be asked how they could be in a position where they are short of targets, given the vast amounts of money spent on a scouting system that has been drastically overhauled in recent years.

But it takes a certain profile of player to thrive at a club the size of United, while there is a general shortage of top-class centre forwards.

Just last year, City pursued a then-36-year-old Ronaldo because of their failure to land their leading target, Harry Kane.

Bayern Munich have signed 30-year-old Sadio Mane, while Barcelona are chasing Robert Lewandowski, who will be 34 in August.

The Catalan giants also signed 33-year-old Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in February. Karim Benzema, at 34, is still leading Real Madrid’s line.

There is not a conveyor belt of emerging high-class centre forwards – which is why Haaland is such an outlier.

Richarlison was on United’s radar when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in charge.

Liverpool’s move for Nunez was swift, with Jurgen Klopp only wowed by him after scouting reports ahead of the Champions League tie with Benfica last season.

Whereas United have been criticised for how slow they were in formalising their interest, Liverpool were decisive and it is easy to see why, considering the shortage of alternatives on the market.

Kane has long-been a dream target for United – and they were considered one of the few viable contenders for the England captain this summer.

But Spurs’ transformation under Antonio Conte and qualification for the Champions League ahead of United, makes any move highly unlikely – not least because Kane is now open to signing a new contract.

United, along with the majority of Europe’s big clubs, admire RB Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku, who has just signed a new deal with the German club.

Paulo Dybala is a free agent after leaving Juventus and is a player liked by United – and would appear to be one of the more viable options – but there has been little indication of the Argentina forward being in Ten Hag’s thoughts.

Neymar is another possibility amid doubts about his Paris Saint-Germain future.

Both Dybala and Neymar would represent huge financial commitments from United when neither were among Ten Hag’s initial targets this summer.

While United will have to be agile to replace Ronaldo at such late notice, they need to be certain about a signing of such significance.

There has been a lot of short-termism when it comes to the point of their attack, with high hopes that Mason Greenwood would establish himself as a world-class goal-scorer.

Their three most recent striker signings were last-ditch moves for Odion Ighalo, Edinson Cavani and Ronaldo.

By comparison, Klopp has evolved his front three of Salah, Mane and Roberto Firmino with the signings of Nunez, Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota before entirely breaking up his attack.

It is the type of foresight that has been lacking at United over a period of constant flux and changing managers.

Now, this latest mess has plunged their new manager into a position of desperation, barely weeks into the job.

How he responds could be very instructive as to how the Ten Hag era will play out...