Wayne Rooney is a roadblock: Manchester United must be refashioned without him
They are a marketing executive’s dream. The Premier League’s most charismatic, controversial manager. Its most recognisable, most renowned footballer. Together in an axis of power as manager and captain.
Superstars were twinned, allied, Manchester United.
If titles were won on the basis of fame, the United of Jose Mourinho and Wayne Rooney would be runaway league leaders.
Instead, they are seventh. An encouraging August has been followed by a sorry September. Three successive defeats have highlighted the fault-lines in the squad and illustrated the uncharacteristic confusion in Mourinho’s thinking. The notion that he can turn back time, restoring Rooney to his storming best, is already being disabused. The idea that Mourinho can conjure more from Rooney than Louis van Gaal is in doubt.
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Even when he tried to sign the man who will soon be United’s record goalscorer for Chelsea in 2013, it had the feel of a pragmatic attempt to weaken rivals. He was never a definitive Mourinho striker in the mould of Didier Drogba, Diego Milito and Diego Costa. Nor was he a classic creator like Deco, Wesley Sneijder and Mesut Ozil, Mourinho’s three best No 10s.
He had already decided he was not a midfield general in the way Frank Lampard and Cesc Fabregas were. Instead, Rooney is a quandary. In September alone, both Sam Allardyce and Mourinho have performed swift U-turns, reversing previous pledges to play Rooney in attack. Each has used his captain in midfield, with underwhelming results.
He has lost the physical edge that allowed him to rampage in attack but the theory that Rooney would reinvent himself as the second Paul Scholes was fanciful. He can play a diagonal pass, but most of them are harmless. He cannot speed up and slow down the tempo of the game at will as the old master did. He can misplace more passes, some of them easy, in a game than Scholes would in a month.
What he offers are not performances, which Scholes guaranteed, but moments: a goal at Bournemouth, assists against Southampton and Hull City. Yet in the defeats to Manchester City and Watford, Rooney has offered neither. He has not performed or been productive.
He is a dilemma. He is a roadblock. He obstructs the path to a first-team spot to others who have the potential to offer more pace, more fluency, more imagination. Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan started the season on the bench for United and Juan Mata found himself in reserve on Sunday.
Paul Pogba is rarely chosen in his preferred, freer role in a midfield trio, because Rooney has appeared promised a place in the team. Mkhitaryan cannot feature as a No 10 as long as Rooney does. Dele Alli did not even start for England against Slovakia, Ross Barkley did not even make the squad. Rooney the roadblock got in the way of men who represent the future.
Dropping him would not resolve everything. United contrived to be poor in Rooney’s absence against Feyenoord on Thursday. Yet over the past year, he has featured in a large number of abject performances, mainly for United but also including England’s Euro 2016 surrender to Iceland. Holding Rooney solely responsible would be utterly unfair, but he is a common denominator.
He is deteriorating before our eyes, being chosen for his captaincy – there seems universal agreement he is a committed, respected leader – rather than on merit. He is divisive, the decorated figure many want dropped.
There are those who believe Rooney’s pros still outweigh the cons, but accept the situation may have to be reappraised, perhaps in the near future. Then there are others, often his former colleagues turned pundits, who regularly assert that Rooney is a great player. Perhaps he was. He is not now.
He is like Michael Owen in 2008, when his cheerleaders ignored evidence of his decline and acted as though he was still the same player he had been in 2001.
Mourinho, the man with a reputation for his ruthless decision-making, has to recognise that and reshape the United team. Without Rooney at its heart.
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Published: September 19, 2016 04:00 AM