Sometimes a footballer resolves his manager’s selection dilemma. It can be with a performance of such distinction that it dictates that he simply has to play. Or he can remove himself from contention with an act of crass stupidity. That can have the same effect.
Louis van Gaal had seemingly concluded that four into three wouldn’t go and that one of Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata would have to start on the bench.
Rooney’s red card against West Ham rules him out until November. Mata, so unfortunate to be dropped, can return. Problem solved, at least in the short term.
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In the long term, Rooney’s dismissal and departure from the side while he serves a three-match suspension should give Van Gaal time to reflect on two pivotal issues: whether he deserves either his place in the team, let alone the captaincy.
United skippers are not required to have an immaculate disciplinary record. Roy Keane and Nemanja Vidic both received more than their share of red cards and some of the Irishman’s dismissals were particularly needless. Yet it is undeniable they were inspirational figures, serving as commanders-in-chief on the field.
But charging around like a bull in a china shop does not constitute leadership. There was the sense that Rooney was losing control in last week’s 5-3 defeat at Leicester City. He did on Saturday.
Rooney is fortunate that his explanation of his kick at Stewart Downing has been widely accepted, not least by Van Gaal. He presented it as a selfless act, a cynical ploy to halt a counter-attack that went very wrong.
If so, it was an incompetent attempt to stop the West Ham winger; he could have done that simply by tugging him back. It looked rather more like a wild hack, the sort that should have resulted in a sending off at Cardiff City last season.
With distinctly imperfect timing, an interview with Rooney was published at the weekend, marking the 10th anniversary of his United debut. In it, he claimed he had matured on and off the pitch. On the field, he swiftly refuted his own argument.
He also claimed he can improve as a player in the next two or three years. The alternative theory is that, at 28, he has already entered into premature decline. The five-and-a-half year contract United handed him threatens to be far too long for the club’s benefit.
It is worth remembering that, when handing Rooney the armband, Van Gaal said he wanted his skipper to be a “fixture” in the side. That serves as a sure sign Van Gaal did not expect Falcao’s arrival, and rather disproves the notion United’s summer spending was carefully planned.
By the middle of September, the manager had changed his tune a little. No one was guaranteed a place, he said, but his captain had certain privileges. So when he concluded Falcao was a more potent forward, he moved his skipper into a deeper role.
“I was not so satisfied with Rooney as a striker and Mata as a midfielder,” he said. The luckless Spaniard was shifted to the flanks to accommodate the Englishman last season and shoved out of the side this.
In his defence, Rooney performed the attacking half of his job well against West Ham, arriving into the penalty area behind strikers Van Persie and Falcao to convert the opener in the manner of a seasoned attacking midfielder.
His record of three goals in six starts this season is respectable, but a familiar criticism of Rooney over the past three years is that undistinguished displays are camouflaged by the statistics.
A reputation established in his more dynamic days has sustained him for too long. It is why the appointment of the forthright Van Gaal is so intriguing.
Yet even the outspoken Dutchman was fooled by United’s seemingly successful pre-season; he believed his squad was stronger and his defenders better than they have proved.
His decision to elevate Rooney from the ranks was another early measure that may be a misjudgement.
Not that there were many other candidates. Rooney’s appointment as captain of club and country was based on two factors: a shortage of plausible alternatives and the fact he really, really wanted it. Neither provides proof he is suited to it.
The descent of the red mist and the brandishing of the inevitable red card suggest not. This was an accident waiting to happen. Having handed him an absurdly generous contract and then the captaincy, Rooney presents United a problem. It is one of their own making.
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