Life after Rooney: from focal point to bit-part player
It was a moment more than three years in the making. Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson swung his axe in the striker’s direction in 2013, Manchester United fans were introduced to the idea of life after Wayne Rooney. It has taken longer than Ferguson would have envisaged, but following a series of abject performances by the striker, José Mourinho finally elected to relegate an ailing Rooney to the bench.
Admittedly, it was not the first time that the United captain has paid the price for his struggles – Louis Van Gaal reluctantly dropped Rooney on an ill-fated trip to Stoke City last year, only to restore him to the side at half time. This time, however, it felt different.
United fans have watched their club endure a chastening fall from grace in recent times. There are few players who haven’t suffered an extended period on the sidelines following a particularly poor result. By virtue of reputation and ownership of the captain’s armband, Rooney has been safe.
In fact, Rooney has been an almost constant presence during the club’s recent struggles, and his decline has coincided with a general drop in standards. New signings have been played out of position to accommodate him, others dropped freely, and yet Rooney has evaded repercussions for his diminishing influence.
Even in the early weeks of this season, it appeared as though the world’s most expensive player, Paul Pogba, would be forced to dance to Rooney’s increasingly untenable tune. As such, the clamour for Rooney to be removed from the side has been almost painful to observe. And so, when the rumours were confirmed and Rooney was omitted from the side to face Premier League champions Leicester City at the weekend, there was an unusual mix of optimism and tension on social media.
"It was a moment more than three years in the making. Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson swung his axe in the striker’s direction in 2013, Manchester United fans were introduced to the idea of life after Wayne Rooney."
United fans have clung steadfastly to the notion that Rooney’s presence was a major hindrance to the wealth of talent now present in the squad. But now with the wish granted, the Old Trafford faithful had to close their eyes and pray that they had been right all along. The idea that United may not be actually be any better without the beleaguered captain must have crossed the minds of many, yet few dared mention it.
Chris Smalling’s opening goal was important, but United were far from fluent beforehand. The majestic second, involving Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Jess Lingard, and Pogba – all of whom have suffered from Rooney’s presence – was a ringing endorsement of everything that the fans had screamed from the terraces.
Marcus Rashford added a third before Pogba rounded off a blistering spell for Mourinho’s men, the likes of which has been depressingly rare in recent times. Cameras turned to the forlorn Rooney on the bench, and suddenly the question sweeping the stands, studios and Twitter threads was the same – what now for Wayne?
History suggests that this will not be a permanent exile for the United captain, yet it is difficult to imagine the notoriously ruthless Mourinho will offer too many opportunities for Rooney to redeem himself should his side’s level of performance against Leicester be sustained.
Players who had previously looked inhibited and devoid of inspiration roamed the pitch freely. Herrera turned in an impressively understated performance for a player who has been accused of lacking positional discipline. Pogba was granted licence to advance into areas that had been previously occupied by Rooney, feeding Zlatan Ibrahimovic who looked infinitely more comfortable with pacey players surrounding him. Rooney is not necessarily “finished”, as some may insist, its just that United has better options now, as well as a manager undaunted by big decisions.
A prolonged spell on the sidelines holds the potential for Rooney to reevaluate his role at the club, as his public responses to criticism have suggested that Rooney still perceives himself to be at the peak of powers. Privately, he may realise that things are not as they once were; on the pitch he has continued in vain to rediscover a version of himself that seems lost forever.
Rooney’s previous, magnificent incarnation was heavily reliant on his unique physical attributes. Built stocky, but with an explosive burst of speed, there were few defenders who could handle the Scouse-born prodigy’s unique blend of power and pace. These raw qualities were refined with a razor sharp football brain and catalysed by a fiery temperament. Rooney was a perfect storm of brains and brawn.
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The passage of time has robbed Rooney of many qualities, but there is hope that recent events could trigger a re-invention in the much maligned captain. Players of similar stature have adjusted their game in recent years, and while it is highly debatable as to whether Rooney has looked after himself in the same manner as, say, Ryan Giggs, his now inevitable phasing out from the side need not necessarily be ignominious.
Mourinho has made no secret of his admiration for the player he tried to pry away from United just a few years ago, and would likely revel in the challenge of re-programming Rooney. Observers often point to the Portuguese’ ruthless treatment of those he deems surplus to requirements, but he can also point to his influence on previous players who had found themselves on the wrong side of thirty.
Samuel Eto’o joined Mourinho at Chelsea in 2013 and netted important goals for his manager, including a treble against David Moyes’ United. He won the Champions League with 36-year-old Javier Zanetti in midfield. Rooney should no longer be a key component of the United side, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that he can still contribute as Mourinho attempts to restore the club to its former glory, should the Scouser make the correct adjustments to his game.
At his peak, Rooney seemed to be everywhere on the pitch at once, and to an extent he continues to try and roam between midfield and attack with the effectiveness of old. The starting point in any potential resurgence should begin with Rooney no longer striving to emulate his former self, but accept his shortcomings and figuring out how best to influence matches.
Despite being generally poor in his overall contribution, Rooney has not lost his knack for providing key moments on a more sporadic basis. United’s dramatic late winner at Hull City was largely of Rooney’s making, although his general performance had been poor until that point. Additionally, he has occasionally looked comfortable in midfield in situations where his side are leading comfortably.
Rooney’s days of leading the line should be over, but he retains the quality to influence situations from the bench. Whether this will materialise is partially reliant on Rooney’s willingness to accept a lesser role in the squad, which given his personality is difficult to predict.
Mourinho will undoubtedly attempt to aid the transition from focal point to bit-part player, but the final outcome will rest with Rooney – both in where he feels his career should be heading, and whether his decline continues as rapidly as it has started.
In either case, it United is now transitioning to life after Rooney – even if it is three years later than Fergie intended.