Tremors in Wayne’s World
With a career spanning over a decade in which he has won 14 major club honours, is only 3 goals behind Manchester United’s all-time goalscorer, Sir Bobby Charlton and is 9th in the club’s all-time appearance list, this weekend brought a new first for the Manchester United captain when news broke early that he wasn’t in the starting XI. This was the first time he had started on the bench under José Mourinho and only the 3rd time in United’s last 119 league games. The United forward won’t be faulted for reminiscing over the good old days when he wasn’t a lightning conductor for the club’s performances on the field. It certainly did not help that last season saw him score the least amount of league goals in a United shirt. He found the back of the net only 8 times. His defenders had been able to point to his record and past performances — all he needed was some more time, and more games to find his form. Early indications are that time has finally run out. With the club appointing their 3rd manager after Fergie in as many years, the fans, the club, the media and anyone with a passing interest in the game are expecting United to finally show some significant improvement in performances. The team cannot afford to not play to it’s full strength if it is to compete for titles(and justify their transfer outlay over the last 3 seasons). For critics, his drop in goal output was symptomatic of his general poor form and managers who choose to ignore the flashing neon sign indicating he was past it were doomed to fail at the club.
Along with the word record signing Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are the crown jewels of the new look United attack. Mkhitaryan has struggled with injuries but is expected to complement the attack spearheaded by Zlatan Ibrahimovic. United’s first half demolishing of the league’s defending champion last weekend showcased how devastating they could be in front of goal. By dropping Rooney, José gave us a glimpse of a post-Rooney United — and it was everything his critics had imagined and more. Whether this was part of a grand masterplan to erode the support the United captain has in the club and media, is pure speculation, but the gauntlet has been thrown. If Rooney is to remain a permanent fixture in the starting XI, he will have to match or surpass Juan Mata’s performance on Saturday. Watching United play without Rooney was akin to the first couple of days with a brand new phone. Everything just worked. There were no need for forced restarts because the device was unresponsive, and there was no lag when opening and switching among apps. The team played exactly as expected with no hiccups.
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Despite Martial’s best efforts in his debut season, and Rashford crashing the party late, there was only ever going to be one person to lead the United attack. Ibrahimovic ended his last season at PSG with a bang. Scoring over 40 goals in all competitions and ending his stint with the Ligue 1 club as the league’s top scorer with 38 goals. Against Leicester City, the big Swede was impressive despite failing to get on the scoresheet. He anticipated the right time to drop deep to collect the ball, held up the ball to give his teammates time to get further up the field, helped out when defending and most importantly, kept the ball moving. One of the frustrating aspects of Rooney’s game in recent years has been how long he takes to find a pass or make a decision when on the ball. That extra second is the difference between the opposition regaining their defensive shape and exploiting gaps left by retreating players. United’s #9’s overall movement was excellent just as his other attacking teammates. Whether it was him coming into midfield or Rashford moving behind him when Mata drifted out or Zlatan dragging defenders wide for the wide players to move forward, the team was on the same wavelength with every movement made with a purpose in mind.
“I like a #10 to score goals. I like a #10 to get in the box.” A #10 for me is an eight-and-a-half when the team loses the ball and a nine-and-a-half when the team has the ball.” — José Mourinho
For a player who was rumoured to suffer the ignominious fate of being sold twice by the same manager when José was announced as his new manager, Juan Mata hasn’t fared as bad as was expected. The Spanish midfielder was restored in the lineup after being dropped for the Manchester derby. Making his 4th start under José, only this was the first time he was given full control of the creative reins. Since joining United, Mata has scored the 4th most goals and ranks 13th in assists among Premier League midfielders currently playing. All while being played out wide to accommodate Rooney as the #10. Up until the 87' when he was substituted, Mata ticked all the requirements his manager has for an effective #10. He was always looking for a chance to get into the box and took advantage of the moments Zlatan dropped deep to move upfield himself. When Rooney is played in this role, his reaction to Zlatan dropping deeper is to do nothing. This leaves him and Zlatan now occupying the same space or worse, he drops deeper himself, taking up a deeper midfield position. Mata’s velvet first touch and quick intelligent passing as well as movement kept the ball moving throughout the game. For examples, go watch his assist and his goal. It is hard to imagine Rooney replicating such a performance consistently. Maybe years ago but now his first instinct appears to be to pass the ball back towards his own goal or to the player nearest to him. His crossfield passes are as adventurous as he gets these days. Mata might not be a speed merchant but is clever at getting past players and exploiting spaces. The only area he struggles with is playing as an eight-and-a-half when United are hunting the ball as his small stature leaves him easily brushed aside when making challenges. But to his credit, he continues to tracks back and puts himself about when the team is defending. It is not surprising then that his ability on the ball, ability to exploit spaces and find players, as well as prowess when facing goal puts him in higher standing to play as the #10 in the eyes of fans and most media analysts — at least when the alternative is Wayne Rooney.
Last year, there was talk of Rooney reinventing himself as a midfielder. Former United midfielder Paul Scholes was touted as the blueprint he could follow. Nevermind the fact that Scholes made that transition early on in his career and was one of the more talented players to play in the middle of the park. Even the most hopeful Rooney supporter would admit that having been robbed of his pace and explosiveness, nor famed for his passes or touches, he was facing an uphill battle to become an effective midfielder for the club. José put an end to that in his early press conferences and the acquisition of Paul Pogba showed the direction the manager and club wanted to go. Pogba’s performance against the Foxes should stave off his critics for a couple of weeks. Just like your phone’s low battery alert, Pogba’s transfer fee will always pop up. It is annoying but unavoidable, but more complete midfield performances like this weekend and the answer to the question as to whether he was worth the fee will be a resounding yes. Would Rooney be able to provide the power, raw strength, guile, positioning and aggressiveness Pogba provides in midfield? It’s hard to see how.
So what next for Wayne Rooney? Zlatan is a much better forward. Mata is at the moment, the clubs best #10 (at least until Mkhi is fit and has a sustained run in the team). Pogba and Herrera offer much more in the midfield so unless Rooney plans to extend his career by playing in defence or as a goalkeeper, he is a worse option for all the positions he currently plays. Perhaps if the Premier League wasn’t as competitive as it is, with City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs, and Everton all title contending teams led by good managers, he could be a starter for United. The question is would he be willing to accept a significantly diminished role? This will mean starting less games and making more appearances off the bench. He remains a talented player and can come on to help the team protect the lead and even galvanize the team to press on for a win even or salvage a point. Professional athletes are often the last to admit that they are in decline and that seems to be the case with Rooney. Sports is littered with terrific players, club legends even, who overstayed their welcome in the starting XI and tainted their final season(s) with their poor and erratic performances. Rooney’s status as one of Manchester United’s greatest players is assured. It remains his decision how he would like his latter years to be remembered. Be it as the player who refused to acknowledge his decline or as the seasoned vet who helped usher the club into a new era.