Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
Speaking after Manchester United’s 4-1 thrashing of Leicester last Saturday, Gary Neville said it was the first time in what seemed like a long while where United had mercilessly pummeled a team into the ground at home before half-time.
It was a vintage Old Trafford flaying, reminiscent of the bygone days of Ferguson when such butcheries were commonplace, and watching it all from the bench - until the 83rd minute when he was finally introduced - was Wayne Rooney...Wazza...The White Pelé and one-time ‘Wonder Boy’, whose exclusion from the starting XI was the main talking point of the whole weekend, the act being regarded by Neville and many others as the inevitable first step into the Last Phase of his career – a time when Rooney would cease to be a regular starter and would become a strategically used force or ‘impact sub’.
Mourinho was ready for every Rooney-related question that was thrown at him last weekend, and predictably downplayed the effect of his absence, insisting that “my captain is my captain”, and that the victory was down to the team playing well, rather than having anything to do with Rooney not playing. “We thought today against a team like Leicester…with the profile of their defenders, that the best solution for us was to play with the two fast kids (Rashford and Lingard) and Mata in a position where he can interact with these young kids,” he explained. “Today was a day to have fast people on the pitch. It went well for us.”
He went on, diplomatically, to make the point that if Rooney had played from the start then he would have performed well and they still would have won the game, but the general reaction to that appraisal has at best been a sort of half-agreement. A victory with Rooney in the side would still have been probable, it’s supposed, because for a twenty-minute spell before half-time Leicester went all to pieces, suffering a total cerebral meltdown that would have left them vulnerable against anyone. Even Rooney, given enough opportunities and the right timing, might have gotten himself on the scoresheet, but Mourinho would have a much harder time trying to convince people that Rooney would have played well, or that the overall team performance and the style of the win would have been as swift and forceful as it was; a rapid four-punch combo strike to Leicester’s solar plexus that left them sprawled out on the floor by the 43rd minute.
This season has not been a good one for Rooney, so far, with almost every individual performance going down as another addition to the mounting body of evidence against him, strengthening the case for why he needed to be taken out of the team, and giving rise to the theory that the reason Mourinho started him in as many games as he did was to give him enough rope to hang himself, so that he could then be taken out of the team without triggering an earnest outcry among supporters and the press.
The much talked about compilation video of Rooney’s ‘lowlights’ against Watford was perhaps the most damning proof; a hideous show reel of about a dozen or so instances of him losing possession or making wild and careless passes, and it left little room for a credible rendition of the standard Rooney defence that’s readily espoused by ex-pros, who persistently argue that Manchester United and England captain Rooney, by virtue of his name, status and past achievements, and the fact that he still ‘has something to offer’, deserves to have his place in the Starting XI nailed down. “Of course you can’t drop Rooney,” they say. “Sure, he’s not the player he was, but he can still hit a 40-yard pass, and let’s not forget, he still pops up with a goal.”
There’s a distinct split in the Rooney debate between the blind faith on the part of former players turned pundits like Paul Ince and Trevor Sinclair, who argue that the best solution to the Rooney problem is to move him to a different position, and those perhaps less concerned with burning bridges who advocate taking him out of the team altogether. Ince considers Rooney to be a better No.10 than Juan Mata, while Sinclair, acknowledging Rooney’s lack of mobility and pace, believes the obvious solution is to play him as a No.4 holding midfielder, an idea that would have made even van Gaal and Hodgson shudder.
Prior to last Saturday, it was virtually unheard of for any former player to acknowledge in public that the best thing for Manchester United was to take Rooney out of the team entirely, but once it happened Neville was able to eloquently rationalise the decision.
“It was inevitable. The pressure has been building around here for the last two to three weeks," Neville said. “In some ways, it’s become a distraction and that’s not good. It’s the right decision to leave him out today...It’s the right thing for Wayne Rooney: he has looked mentally and physically shot in the last two weeks. Have a rest and come back stronger."
Rooney was again used a second-half substitute on Thursday night against Ukraine’s Zorya Luhansk, when he ’changed the game’ by assisting Ibrahimovic for the only goal of the match. “Moments after his introduction, the skipper was immediately involved in United’s opener,” United’s official website noted in its match report, “skewing an effort into the path of Ibrahimovic, who couldn’t miss with his header at the far post from close range.”
Skewing...an interesting word choice. Other news sources used the word “scuffed”, but even ManUtd.com’s description was less generous than Robbie Savage, who gave Rooney the full benefit of the doubt as only ex-players are capable of: “Rooney just used all his experience...he didn’t go into the bodies, he just pulled out, great little move,” Savage said. “The ball’s fired in…and he’s got an assist.”
Confronted with Michael Carrick’s goal against Northampton on September 21st, Savage might have also found a way to credit Rooney: “The United and England captain has just pulled off the mother of all assists,” Savage might have said. “It stuns the mind, but what he appears to have done is...yes, I believe that Rooney had his angles all worked out there and put it on a plate for Carrick. A truly inspired move by England’s captain, to fire the free kick straight into the wall in that manner, knowing it would deflect at a 45 degree angle right into Carrick’s path, teeing him up with perfect precision for the finish...Pure genius is all I can say.”
That United were far better without Rooney last weekend, and that his ‘decisive impact’ was little more than blind luck mid-week, are factors that the old-boy network of pro-Rooney people have a hard time coming to terms with. Turning 31 later this month, Rooney’s ‘body age’, in a football sense, has been estimated at somewhere around 33 or 34, as an upshot of playing consistently since the age 16, but maybe an extra year or two should be added onto that due to the nature of Rooney’s physique – a stocky-type build that requires him to play at least a game a week to prevent his match sharpness from plummeting.
“It was not wise for England to give him [Rooney] a week’s holiday before Euro 2012 because he might lose his edge,” Alex Ferguson wrote in his 2013 autobiography. “If he missed a couple of weeks for United it could take him four or five games to get his sharpness back.”
That’s one argument against the notion, subscribed to by Neville and others, that Rooney would come back ‘stronger’ after some time away from being a regular starter, or could somehow raise himself to a higher level, as Paul Scholes believes, when the ‘Big Games’ come around, as if his problem was a simple motivational issue.
The positive feelings floating around the club over two years ago, when Rooney signed a new five-year deal under Moyes’ watch, obscured the shadow on the horizon and made it easy to ignore the reality that one day United would have a 33-year old Wayne Rooney on their books – a nightmarish future vision of a half-fit waning has-been sucking £300,000 from the club every week. His deterioration, at the time, seemed inevitable, but was still regarded as a distant problem that few predicted would be a dominating issue as soon as the early stages of 2016/17.
Ferguson, towards the end, didn’t seem overly concerned with the prospect of Rooney leaving, because for various reasons Wazza had fallen out of favour at the time. Less than a year later, Rooney was able to use a spell of high-level individual form, United’s vulnerable position and a flirtation with other clubs in an impressive power play to fleece them for more than a lot of people think he’s worth.
It was undeniable that, under Moyes, United needed Rooney more than the other way around, a state of affairs that allowed the situation to get uncomfortably close to the ‘one player being bigger than the club’ scenario that Ferguson was always careful to avoid and could afford not to tolerate. Moyes, under severe pressure, didn’t have that luxury, and nor did van Gaal. Mourinho just might, but it’s a power he’s either yet to fully realise or publically admit to having.