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The name Wayne Rooney has become a divisive one amongst Manchester United, and for that matter, England fans. So to begin this article, it is important to remind ourselves the cold hard facts regarding the subject matter. Still only 30 years old, he has amassed 522 appearances for Manchester United over 12 seasons, scoring 246 goals. He will almost certainly overtake Sir Bobby Charlton as the club’s all-time leading goal scorer this season, and is currently second to Alan Shearer in the all-time leading Premier League goal scoring chart. He has won five Premier League titles, the Champions League, the FA Cup, the FA Cup, two League Cups, and various other titles and individual accolades. No matter what the future holds, he is a legend for club and country.
He has enjoyed tremendous longevity at one club, and can only be applauded for his dedication and level of consistency over a career which began in senior football at the age of 16, and has continued at a relentless pace with little time to pause for rest ever since. He has also matured into the captain of both his club and country in the last few years; and has matured from a very raw and understandably inarticulate youth who tossed out swear words as often as verbs, into a well versed and respected figure among both his team mates and football fans globally. His recent testimonial showed how far he has come as a person as he donated all money made to his own charitable foundation, and spoke admirably to promote the cause.
So with the context being set, I will get to my point: Wayne Rooney is no longer good enough to be a guaranteed starter for Manchester United. In my mind, from watching him over the last four or five seasons, I think that is patently obvious. However, whilst I know there are legions of fans who agree with this assertion, there is apparently a roughly equal number who take it as if it were an insult to their own mother that anyone dare suggest Rooney is not equipped to be the man to lead the team on the pitch any more.
I get it. Rooney was my favourite player too. He had it all. Pace, power, aggression, will to win, and an unbelievable work rate. You could play him anywhere and he would have made any team better. His enthusiasm was infectious. I felt he eclipsed a young Cristiano Ronaldo because he was a ‘proper’ player. Not only did he have the ability, but he could do the dirty work. He benefitted the team, often to his own detriment. I’ve valued that quality in many United players over the years, and that is part of the reason he is still held in such high esteem in the eyes of many fans.
That was then. This level of performance, and importantly athleticism, has not been evident for a long time, and there is no reason for optimism to think that it will come again. His stats the last few seasons still show a good output from him, but I have two things more important than stats. I have eyes. As much as it pains me to say it, my eyes tell me that Rooney has become a problem for this team.
The qualities that, ten years ago, put Wayne Rooney into world class category have declined and almost disappeared. I know he is only 30, but players age and decline at different rates. Just ask Michael Owen. Rooney has avoided any major injuries, so the reason for his physical decline are open for debate, but it is sorely evident. When he was only 18, he burst on to the international scene at Euro 2004, and terrified every side he played against. He had natural pace and power, and could go past the most seasoned of international defenders with ease. He could link play up, he could score all sorts of goals, he could hold it up, he could run in behind. His was the most exciting signing made during the entire Ferguson era, and I personally feel he did not disappoint. Now though, 12 years later, those qualities have evaporated.
Understandably, when David Moyes began his doomed reign as manager, he made it a priority to sign Rooney to a mind boggling new contract. He looked set to leave until Ferguson’s retirement and I can only speculate as to the reasons for that. I do not have any inside sources, and can only judge by what I have seen and what I have read in the mainstream media and various autobiographies. On that basis, I would suggest that Ferguson had come to the conclusion that Rooney had begun his decline and it was time to move him on – the irony being that Mourinho at Chelsea at that point was the main suitor. Rooney had begun to fall out of favour towards the end of the 2012/13 season, finding himself out of the side on occasion, and increasingly being deployed in midfield as Robin van Persie became the new focal point of the attack. This change of role illustrates that even at that point, Rooney had lost the ability to go past players and had started to try and adapt his game. At that stage he had given interviews stating that he believed he would mature into a midfield player, an indication that he was also aware he had to evolve and adapt as he had lost much of the strength and athleticism that used to make him an elite level forward. As the season drew to a close Ferguson claimed Rooney had asked for a move elsewhere, which was understandable given his stature at the time and his decreased prominence in the team.
This was a scenario seen at United many times before. Legends of the club who had begun a visible decline – age catches up with us all eventually – and Ferguson moved them on, putting sentiment aside. It happened to Keane, Yorke, Cole, Hughes, Robson, Bruce, Van Nistelrooy, Beckham, and many others besides, albeit in a variety of different circumstances. There comes a point, and at this stage Rooney was only 27, that the difficult decision needs to be made to let a great, often loyal player go.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but surely few could argue that a move to Chelsea at this point would have been the best move for United. They would have received a significant transfer fee for a player who simply was not capable of recapturing the form of his early years, and saved themselves the almost incomprehensible £300,000 a week wages on the new contract he then signed. As we all know, much went wrong at the club at this juncture as it stumbled drunkenly around the top end of the transfer market, desperately trying to attract top players, before eventually going home with a central midfielder who looks like he was designed on the FIFA ‘create a player’ mode as a joke. Rooney’s status was elevated again, and he was promptly restored as the focal point of the team, and eventually made captain.
So Mourinho now has the player he had coveted in 2013. Can he get the best out of him, and if so where does he fit in? He was instant in his assertion that Wayne Rooney is not a midfielder, where he was deployed almost exclusively by Van Gaal and then by Hodgson upon his return from injury towards the end of last season. During this period he ably demonstrated why he is closer to the next Jimmy Bullard than Paul Scholes. He has had decent games in that position, but he does not have the ability, intelligence or variation in his game to be a top level midfield playmaker. It is not for want of trying – if anything he tries too hard. He relies on attempting the long range and constant cross field balls instead of retaining possession, and he lacks the subtlety and incisiveness already possessed in players like Juan Mata and Ander Herrera.
The hope, then, is that Mourinho can bring back the old Rooney magic either as a central striker, or in the hole as ‘number 10’. Early evidence from pre-season is that deploying him in either position is to the detriment of the team. The new signings are exciting, proven, top class players and they will complement the existing young talent available. Marcus Rashford should not be held back by Rooney’s reputation and legacy. He is reminiscent of the fearless young Rooney. He has electric pace, he can beat players, and has scored stunning a vital goals at just 18 years of age. Martial has had a huge impact and offers similar pace and goal scoring potential. Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrives boasting the best combined goals and assist stats from last season in the Bundesliga, and looks to be approaching his prime. Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be 4 years older than Rooney, but he has maintained his athleticism having already converted a bicycle kick within minutes of his first friendly appearance, and arrives off the back of a season with PSG where he scored 38 goals in 31 games. Add to that attacking quartet the world record signing of Paul Pogba, and it is hard to justify a place for the United captain. The Galatasaray friendly was a perfect microcosm of the current Wayne Rooney – he ended the game having scored two goals…. But his overall performance was a little worse than dreadful. His first touch was barely befitting of a professional footballer, and he slowed down what was otherwise quick, incisive, exciting play amongst the myriad of attacking talent now sprinkled throughout this expensively assembled squad.
Rooney does still have quality, and can be a positive influence on the squad if he plays more of a bit-part role. Captains of years gone by have accepted this approaching their twilight years, such as Robson, Bruce and Neville; but realistically this is never going to happen. There is simply a huge pressure to play Rooney, coming from the British media, commercially and politically. Without being privy to player relationships, Rooney is the captain of the club and no doubt respected by his colleagues. He appears to have developed good leadership skills and an influence over the squad, making him difficult to drop. He is also famous the world over and is tied in heavily with United’s most profitable sponsorship deals, and as such it is beneficial for him to remain a key element of the side. There has even been unsubstantiated speculation that it has been written into his contract that he must play when fit. It is hard to believe that this is true, but when you consider just how poor Rooney has been at times in the last few seasons whilst retaining his place in the team, it adds some weight to the speculation.
However, there must be a limit to this privileged position, and the arrival of Pogba may accelerate his extraction from the team. To get the best out of Pogba, the Euros have shown that this would not be as part of a two man midfield. He operates best as part of a three, or playing in the ten role himself. By retaining Rooney, the club’s record investment may suffer as a result.
This would cause problems for Mourinho, and it will be fascinating to see how he handles the formulation of his side over the opening games of the season, especially given his preference for a settled team. He is a pragmatic manager who you would not expect to cater to reputation, so the Rooney issue could come to a head in the very near future unless he hits the ground running this season. I genuinely hope he proves me, and a lot of other people wrong this season. However, I simply cannot see Rooney performing to a level that genuinely justifies his continued selection.
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