Don't let Wayne Rooney's goalscoring performance in Manchester United's 3-1 win at Bournemouth fool you – the England forward's best days are behind him.
Rooney’s lack of pace, increasingly poor touch and tendency to pass backwards hindered what was a promising United performance.
It is early days in Jose Mourinho's reign, but he might already be developing a blind spot for Rooney's decline. Like Louis van Gaal before him, he is desperately searching for the old Rooney. Except that Rooney might not even exist anymore.
Take Rooney’s pace for example. The old Rooney wasn’t the fastest player on the pitch, but he used to strike fear into defenders with his direct and powerful running combined with close control. If you wanted a player to run the ball 60 yards down the line to relieve pressure, he was the man.
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On Sunday, he was played through down the line several times but it was evident that he didn’t have the legs to either beat his man or hold him off in a chase. So he turned backwards and the attack stopped dead.
Alright, so Rooney’s game wasn’t all about pace. Surely Mourinho can make the most of his close control and creativity? Except that is missing from Rooney’s game too. Going back to the last months of last season, Rooney’s touch has regressed. A particularly bad example was his performance for England in their shock Euro 2016 loss to Iceland, where several times during the 90 minutes the ball bounced yards away from him as he attempted to control it.
On Sunday, several attacks either broke down or lost their impetus when he dithered on the ball and was forced to go backwards. It’s clear Rooney is lacking in confidence, despite his positive quotes post-game about his belief in his ability.
Standard Rooney stuff.
It’s not like there isn’t competition for Rooney’s place either. While the Englishman scored 12 goals and set up six for United last season, they have signed a man who scored 19 and set up 24 in the Bundesliga, Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
He’s a classic No 10 and Mourinho didn’t spend so much money on him to sit on the bench. But Rooney and Mkhitaryan in the same line-up means a lack of pace down the right flank, though that could be countered by Antonio Valencia’s thrusts from right-back.
While, from the outside, it seems like Mourinho may be falling into the same trap as previous United managers and thinking Rooney can still play like Rooney version 2010, the Portuguese didn’t get where he is today without making tough decisions.
He probably hasn’t shown his hand yet. If he strolled right into United and dropped Rooney, he would make major headlines. And, even if Rooney should not be a first-choice player, he is still the captain, an important figure in the dressing room. He has been at United longer than any other player and Mourinho will want him onside.
Maybe Mourinho’s plan was always to start the season with Rooney, see if it worked before bringing in his big money signing, or injecting more pace with someone like Jesse Lingard down the wing.
While United are winning, Mourinho can afford to indulge Rooney and see if he plays himself into form.
But eventually he is going to have to drop his captain or risk missing out on a serious title challenge.
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