José Mourinho’s influence continues to grow at Man United, as the club continues to enjoy a strong start to the season. There is a real sense of progress after a dire two years under Louis van Gaal, where the club lurched from one low to another. While a number of the current squad, including Memphis Depay, Matteo Darmian and Marcos Rojo have failed to do themselves justice with a number of sub-par performances, it is Wayne Rooney who continues to occupy the back pages and tabloids. As Rooney continues to look a little quiet and off-the-pace, questions have arisen about Rooney’s inclusion at the expense of other players. While there is respect for Rooney’s achievements in the game, opinions are polarised about whether Rooney should feature in Mourinho’s first XI. The first four games of the season have only fuelled the debate further, even if United’s strong results have largely relegated this to a secondary issue. All in all, there is no time like the present to examine Rooney’s standing at club and international level.
THE SITUATION AT MOURINHO’S UNITED
Jose Mourinho had readily prepared his script when he was handed the keys to Old Trafford. He staunchly defended his record in playing youth and said that all members of the current squad would be given the opportunity to prove themselves. He praised Rooney’s achievements and said that the captain would play behind striker Zlatan Ibrahimović, who would act as the focal point as the team’s attack. Rooney, it seems, would be the team’s No. 10, with the ability to work the channels, find a pass and contribute to the team’s goal haul. More tellingly, Mourinho was dismissive about using Rooney in a deeper role, and bluntly stated that anyone could play amazing passes when they were not under pressure. The underlying point was that Rooney would not play either the 6 (Defensive Mid) or 8 (Box-to-Box) positions in midfield, because there are better players that fit those roles.
CAPTAIN, LEADER, LEGEND
Rooney’s supporters will state that he still has a lot to offer, in the form of the requisite nous and savvy in how to win games. Rooney has done an exemplary job as captain in the last two years, carrying the team as he was being flitted like a band-aid from position-to-position. This was no mean feat during the possession-to-death keepsakes football under LVG. There is no question about Rooney’s importance or his place as a Manchester United legend, who embodies the United identity for a team in transition. If there was any dispute, one just has to look at his goalscoring record. He is one of four players to score more than 200 goals for Man Utd. With a new manager at the helm this year, Rooney has played four times in a team that takes a more attacking approach and getting the ball forward quickly. His record of four appearances, one goal, and two assists is a confirmation of his undeniable class, and offers a rebuttal to those who say he should not start. Rooney in this light is akin to Chelsea’s John Terry, who is the “Captain, Leader, Legend” of a team that he has known throughout his peak years. It is clear that he continues to offer a lot to a team that remains in transition, and may require another transfer window or two, to clear out the deadwood.
GOOD ALTERNATIVE OPTIONS AT NO. 10
On the other side of the fence, there are United fans who are more circumspect about Rooney’s perceived importance. Rooney has become more celebrated for the guidance and leadership he provides to younger players behind the scenes, rather than great performances on the pitch, which were punctuated by great goals that win important games. As Rooney’s game shows signs of gradual decline, this group has also become increasingly vocal, as they question whether other squad members should be given an opportunity in the No. 10 role. Juan Mata has better vision, and could probably open a tin of beans with that left foot. Mata lacks pace, but the same could be said about Rooney, who no longer has that turn of pace from his youth. It also doesn’t allow him to compensate for a heavy first touch.
When he acclimatises to the Premier League, Henrikh Mkhitaryan looks the type of athletic No. 10 that would feature in a Mourinho team. The Armenian is mobile, with quick feet to boot, which will be handy against defences that like to sit deeper. There is real hope amongst United fans that he can offer a bit more guile and finesse to a team that looked short of ideas last year. This perceived ability to shift the ball quickly is in contrast to Rooney, who has a tendency to put his foot on the ball and slow the pace down. There is also the issue of misplacing simple passes and a poor first touch, which you would not expect for £250,000 a week. To jest, this may never be as immaculate as Maraoune Fellaini’s world class chest control, but there is hope that Rooney’s right foot can offer a little more consistency. Against Hull, Rooney may have provided the assist in a last gasp 1-0 win, but was lacking throughout most of the game. In contrast, Mkhitaryan was brought on in the 60th minute and managed to breeze past three Hull players with an impressive driving run in a second half cameo.
QUESTIONS ABOUT HIS SUITABILITY TO UNITED’S SHAPE
Taking both sides into account – at what stage does Rooney’s supposed savvy become outweighed by the need to start a player who is more compatible to the team in the No. 10 role? Is there a need to provide this unquantifiable leadership in the same way, when you have other big personalities willing to grasp the bull by its horns, such as Zlatan, Paul Pogba, Daley Blind or David De Gea, who offer the sense of security and identity in attack, midfield and defence? These players have, so far, dispelled various notions of their perceived inadequacies, without the surrounding media circus of whether they deserve to start.
Moreover, does Rooney’s presence stop Zlatan and Pogba playing their best game? It has been evident in the past four games that Rooney and Zlatan take up similar positions when running into space. Dropping Rooney allows the possibility of adding more zip, through either Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford, to complement Zlatan’s flicks and knockdowns. It may also allow the introduction of a third midfielder to shore things up, and release the shackles on Pogba to link play further forward. Conversely, in Mourinho’s book, Rooney has to be played as a No. 10. In which case, does this mean that United should continue to shun other players around to fit him into the team? Should the team still be built around Rooney?
The ongoing debate about Rooney’s merits at United is not trapped in a microcosm. Rooney is again at the centre of a storm with England, where another manager has taken a stab at rejuvenating and reviving an underperforming squad. An impending sense of déjà vu perhaps?
Sam Allardyce managed to raise a few eyebrows following the England v Slovakia game, when he confessed that Rooney plays where he wants. Allardyce praised how Rooney controlled the game and suggested that he had no right to tell Rooney how to lead the team. It is true that Rooney may be more needed by England at this stage than Man Utd, particularly given how England exited Euro 2016 with barely a whimper against Iceland. To flip Allardyce’s point on its head, there is not much controlling being done as a No. 10 if he is 40 yards behind where he should be. Rooney himself had said that had was an “overreaction” on where he plays, but is it really? For England, Rooney cannot be a player without portfolio at international level. England have been found wanting – in scoring the goals to win games against stubborn opposition – at World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016. It is not as if they are able to keep clean sheets with a brittle defence or win penalty shoot outs, like how Portugal won the Euros this year.
WHERE SHOULD HE PLAY FOR ENGLAND?
The question about Rooney’s role for England is an extension of the ongoing narrative at United. Simply put, the merits of playing Rooney and what happens across 90 minutes does not fit. If the point of having Rooney in the team is to provide and score goals, why does he ends up off the pace, dropping into the heart of midfield as a No. 6 or 8? There was a stage where centre-half John Stones ended up in front of him. Rooney’s midfield berth was something that legendary goalkeeper Peter Shilton clearly took issue with, when he suggested that Rooney should have retired after Euro 2016. England is creating unnecessary problems by trying to fit Rooney into the team, because he is neither a striker nor a midfielder. Shilton added: “He is spraying a few balls around, but I don’t think he’s being very effective.”
When Dele Alli came on in the 64th minute, he offered a spritely riposte to Rooney’s work in the intervening minutes before. Alli offered a real out-ball, because of his ability to drive at defenders. This was something that Rooney once provided, with his power and aggression. Ross Barkley, who was not included in the latest England squad, is another player that brings back memories of a younger Rooney that effortlessly glided past players. There is an inherent issue with playing Rooney behind Harry Kane, while arguing that his job scope is to control the midfield. Before Adam Lallana’s last gasp goal, England looked toothless against Slovakia. This is untenable. Rooney will not dominate games from midfield at international level. He may do an admirable job in galvanising a team hurting from defeat against Iceland, but there has to be more. England Expects. More than another disappointing group stage, second round, or quarter final exit at the next World Cup.
Going forward, there has to be a point where Rooney’s place in Man Utd’s or England’s starting XI has to be questioned, even if you are a big Rooney supporter and his bicycle kick finish against Man City adorns every night of your dreams. Yes, this is only four games in. No one is here to castigate him nor single him out, or the time to start burning effigies as England’s public enemy No. 1. There is a danger where debates about players become sucked into the polarising nature of Ronaldo-Messi arguments, where the choices are either to love or to hate.
For United fans, who see him a lot, and England fans, who see him somewhat less, there is much more to expect from those listless performances. If the correlation states that this is a clear decline, rather than a one-off game, then when will Man United or England start other players that may offer a better platform to build on? Rooney may remain a useful squad player, but his place in either starting XI cannot be set in stone. Alternatively, if Rooney’s merits as an undisputed starter are that strong, is this writer losing the plot?