When Cristiano Ronaldo made his sensational return to Manchester United last summer, it was billed as the final piece in the jigsaw for a club seeking to rediscover its former glories.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had secured a second-place finish in the Premier League and with big-money acquisitions Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane also coming in, a push for league title number 21 and the first since 2013 was being considered as a realistic possibility.
But six months on, Solskjaer has been sacked and Ronaldo is enduring his longest goal drought in over a decade as the Red Devils crave consistency, struggle to find the net and toil for a top-four position.
The Portuguese forward has still got some vital goals for the side this season, but the dream return is fast turning into a nightmare, with interim boss Ralf Rangnick stating openly that United’s need for a striker in the summer is an “obvious” one.
Asked after United’s 1-1 draw against Southampton whether he was worried about Ronaldo’s form, Rangnick told BBC Sport: “He would have wished to have scored, I would have wished him to score, the whole team would have.
“He had good chances – one of the biggest chances in the game when he went past the goalkeeper but it was cleared.”
‘Ronaldo’s record speaks for itself’
The chance Rangnick mentions came in the sixth minute, when Ronaldo went round Saints goalkeeper Fraser Forster but a weak left-footed shot was cleared off the line by Romain Perraud.
Sancho did give the hosts a 21st-minute lead but for the third consecutive game they failed to press home their superiority and were pegged back for a draw by Che Adams’ second-half equaliser.
In all, Ronaldo had just two shots in the game, the second coming from an angle and fired straight at Forster.
United may have been cruising to victory had he taken either opportunity, but he now finds himself on a run of six games without scoring, his longest barren spell in 11 years.
Former Republic of Ireland international Andy Reid said on BBC Radio 5 Live: “Ronaldo is United’s most likely to score goals based on history, he has proved that. But that isn’t based on his performance today – we have hardly really seen him today, but you don’t bring him off, because of his history.
“Manchester United have a lack of identity at the moment. They just don’t know what they are doing. It is hit-and-hope stuff a lot of the time.”
Former England international Fara Williams said on Football Focus: “Ronaldo has to play [every game]. He is a scorer.
“All this hype around Ronaldo being a negative part of what is happening at Manchester United, his record speaks for itself. You have got to play him.”
While Ronaldo was often outfought and outmuscled by the Saints defenders, throwing his arms up in frustration at times, he is the club’s top scorer this season with 14 goals.
Six of those strikes have come in Europe where he has dragged United into the Champions League knockout stages with late winners against Villarreal and Atalanta, and another injury-time strike against the Serie A side to claim a vital draw.
“United felt for them to push on and win league titles, the missing piece was the manager,” European football expert James Horncastle said on the Euro Leagues podcast.
“The personnel they had recruited until the final days of the window did inspire some confidence that United were going to get a little closer. Now you put Ronaldo in there and the dynamic has completely changed.
“Because of what he costs the club you have to find a system that includes him and often that means you go away from what you stand for as a coach in terms of your philosophy.
“When he still puts in memorable highlights rather than performances and they generate a lot of reaction – ‘wow, look at Ronaldo, he still has it’ – all they do is cover up some of the dysfunction, the flaws within the system. It is a golden spanner in the works.”
Misfiring United ‘not working hard enough’
Rangnick refused to lay the blame solely on Ronaldo for the draw against Southampton saying the team “created enough chances” but are not effective enough in the “number of goals we score”.
The statistics don’t make for pretty reading – United have averaged fewer goals per game (14 in 10) under Rangnick than any previous Red Devils boss in the Premier League.
They have scored more than once just three times in 10 league games under the German and the draw against Southampton was a third consecutive one in which they have gone ahead, looked the better side but conceded a second-half equaliser, including their penalty shootout exit in the FA Cup.
Manchester United full-back Luke Shaw told BBC MOTD: “History is repeating itself again. We started really well the first 20 minutes, got the goal and it just happened again. We know it’s not good enough and it needs to change quickly.”
Former United midfielder Paul Scholes was scathing in his assessment, saying on BT Sport: “I don’t think the players are working hard enough to win a game of football.
“There is a lot of talent in that team but with talent you have to work hard. I feel sorry for the manager – the players are either not listening or don’t want to do it.”
But opposition manager Ralph Hasenhuttl gave maybe the most telling comment, suggesting teams have United worked out.
The Austrian said: “It is not a big secret that when they lose the ball that the reverse gears are not the best from everybody.”