As 2022 draws to a close, Cristiano Ronaldo has the unusual experience of going to the World Cup without a club, available to those looking to add one of the game’s best players to their squad for the second half of the season.
The 37-year-old has expressed his desire to play in the Champions League, but signed a £177 million ($214 million)-a-year deal with Saudi Arabian club Al Nasr on Friday.
Ronaldo’s performances in the first half of the season for Manchester United and for Portugal at the World Cup show that he is a player who has never reached his former heights. So we thought it would be a fun experiment to place him at eight different clubs in Football Manager 2023 and see how he performs for the rest of the campaign. We covered each of his mid-season acquisitions, ensuring he joined in January and how he would fit in with the new team.
Unfortunately, the Saudi Pro League is not an option in the game, so this exercise was designed to gauge what to expect from Al Nasr’s big-money recruits, rather than trying to determine which way he will arrive. Specifically, Saudi Arabia.
As the 196-cap, 118-goal Portugal international has produced a series of mixed results in FM23, we’ve picked out some teams that are completely outliers for realistic options…
Graham Potter’s need for a reliable option is well documented. Armando Broja is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is in the final stages of his career at the age of 33 and Kai Havertz’s form at No.9 has been inconsistent.
In our FM23 simulation, Chelsea finished sixth at the start of January, three points off the top four. A title challenge seemed out of the question, but a place in next season’s Champions League is no more, which gives us the sub-plot we need.
Chelsea managed to finish in the top four, but Ronaldo failed to make an impact. He failed to manage a single start or goal in his six months at Stamford Bridge, making 16 substitute appearances, just 10 of those coming to the Premier League.
The club reached two major finals, winning the FA Cup and losing to Liverpool in the Champions League, but on both occasions Ronaldo was an unused substitute. He offered very little under Potter and ended the season without a goal.
Before he first joined Manchester United in 2003, Ronaldo was said to be on the verge of a move to Arsenal, with the north London club keeping the No.9 shirt for him. Arsenal’s current number 9, Gabriel Jesus, suffered an injury while playing for Brazil at the recent World Cup, which could keep him out for several months.
To replicate real-life conditions, we’ve ensured that Jesus has a knee injury that will keep him out until April. This means Arsenal’s league position could be compromised by Ronaldo’s injury before he joins, but a better idea of how the latter will perform should be obtained.
Arsenal were fifth before he arrived. They finished the season in sixth place, without any trophies and in the quarter-finals of the Europa League against Manchester United. Ronaldo scored seven goals in 26 games. For context, Eddie Nketiah has made 48 appearances, 40 of which have come from the bench, scoring just eight times.
Waiting at the same club as Ronaldo and Lionel Messi sounds like a nightmare. Not because he was asked to play alongside a modern day great, but at PSG he had to dethrone Kylian Mbappe in their starting XI.
PSG would also win the French title despite the addition of Ronaldo, but this hypothetical move would make sense if he could help them win the Champions League after losing the final and semi-finals.
To no one’s surprise, the Parisian giants went top of Ligue 1 at the start of January with six points.
As the curtain fell on the season, PSG won the league, but only just – a last-day victory helped them move above Monaco – and in Europe it was another close but no-frills affair. In the semi-finals, Ronaldo scored the winner in extra time against Liverpool, but PSG lost 3-0 to Manchester City in the final.
The Portuguese proved to be a useful addition, scoring five goals in 19 games (17 of which came from the bench), but in the end PSG’s European title hopes continued.
How did Ronaldo and Messi work as a team? Not great. Ronaldo has never assisted Messi and Messi has never assisted Ronaldo. Indeed, there has never been a single game in which both seniors scored.
In the summer of 2003, a teenage Ronaldo played for Sporting Lisbon in a friendly against Manchester United. A week later he was a United player.
When we gave him the chance to return to FM23, he became their undisputed starter, scoring six times in 17 league games, but Sporting failed to challenge for the title. They were third and fourth when he arrived, while Ronaldo’s former employers were relegated from the Europa League.
With less than 18 months to go before the start of the 2024 European Championship, it would be logical to assume that Ronaldo would have one eye on being part of the Portugal squad, but he will be almost 40 by then. He will need to play regularly to be in that conversation, especially after 21-year-old Goncalo Ramos ousted him in the knockout stages of the 2022 World Cup and promptly scored a hat-trick against Switzerland.
This FM23 experiment suggests that a return to Sporting could be one of his best options, as he would play regularly at a high level and still feature in European competitions for his boyhood club.
The MLS team owned by David Beckham and managed by Phil Neville are believed to sign Messi in real life. Whether or not the move will go ahead remains to be seen after his World Cup win less than two weeks ago, but a flagship transfer seems unlikely for the Florida side.
In MLS, 14 of the 29 clubs qualify for the end-of-season playoffs that determine the champions, and Ronaldo’s arrival has helped Miami achieve that goal on FM23. But once they got there, they couldn’t put together any significant push.
Critics point to Ronaldo not scoring in his biggest game of the season, a 1-0 loss to the New England Revolution in the quarterfinals, while the faithful point to Miami winning the American version of the FA Cup.
A return of 18 goals from 42 appearances was respectable, but nothing for the top goalscorer in Champions League history.
Overall, Ronaldo’s move to Miami was strong, but not spectacular, according to FM23.
Despite their pursuit of Champions League football this season, Eddie Howe’s side are targeting long-term additions who will add value to the club over the next few seasons. Going forward, the advantage is signing a versatile forward.
All of the above shows that they have little interest in signing Ronaldo in real life. But the idea of adding the kind of star power he could bring to a club with ambitions to reach that level of world fame was too interesting an experiment to pass up, and that’s why we’re here.
Newcastle were sixth in the league at the start of January and had slipped one position towards the end of the season. Ronaldo finished the Premier League with 17 starts and four goals and, crucially, Newcastle ended the season with their first domestic silverware since 1955, defeating Liverpool in the FA Cup final.
With an average rating of 6.95, Ronaldo has made decent progress on the right side of the attack. He wasn’t a liability, but didn’t do much to lift the side beyond their current capabilities.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have now clearly entered the territory of the outliers.
Wrexham is an interesting story, a club with Hollywood actor owners who played in the current Championship in the 1980s and are looking to get promoted from the League Ones. What if he chose to join a north Wales club (handy for the short drive across Cheshire!) in FM23?
The result may seem obvious, but promotion to the EFL has not been easy. Wrexham finished second in the National League and the only club to be promoted, beating Eastleigh 1-0 in the automatic play-off final, with Ronaldo scoring the decisive goal to seal the deal.
Ronaldo was also rarely used in a central attacking position, with FM23’s algorithms preferring to play Paul Mullin in the middle instead, adapting to a striker where the five-time Ballon d’Or winner has spent most of his career. League Two, the fourth tier of the English game.
13 goals in 18 appearances has been prolific, but given the level Wrexham are currently playing at and the level at which he has played, it looked possible to better Mullin’s league goals tally in a full season (14) and he fell short.
Returning to Italy with Lazio, former Juventus star Ronaldo has enjoyed his most successful run at any of the big teams in all our simulations. He scored 11 times in 24 appearances in all competitions and proved to be Serie A’s most prolific mid-season player.
Lazio were fifth when he joined and fifth again at the end of the season, but everything Ronaldo wanted from a real club was met there. He started often, managed a decent number of goals and ran deep, albeit in the second-tier Europa League, not Europe’s big brother.
Some of our other experiments have suggested he could struggle in a fiercely competitive side after leaving United, but these six months in Rome suggest he could still be a high-value addition in the right environment.
Across our eight experiments, Ronaldo has scored just 66 goals in 194 appearances across all competitions, 31 of which have come while in MLS and non-league.
At the big clubs, he often played the role of super-sub…and often didn’t provide a spark. For lower-profile clubs, he started a handful of games but also had to deploy talent on the books, so instead of giving the keys to centering the line, he was moved out wide.
A spell at Lazio was productive, but beyond that he often struggled to hold down a starring role elsewhere, and when he did play, he didn’t make the impact fans would expect from one of their best players. era.
Ronaldo’s profile suggests he’ll probably start a lot, not for most clubs, but if FM23 is anything to go by, he doesn’t seem to be able to reward Al Nasr’s faith in his ability as a starter with his many goals.
(Photo: Matthew Ashton — AMA/Getty Images)