Life after Rooney: from focal point to bit-part player

September 27, 2016 Opinion 10 comments
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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.

Wayne Rooney Happier times: the brilliant teenager signs in 2004

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.

10 comments

NazManUnited - September 27, 2016 Reply

@LiamBryce_ Buy Bye Bye, MUFC need to buy players that can do whatever role anyone thinks Rooney can do & we can say Bye Bye Roo

football Einstein 276 - September 28, 2016 Reply

Can’t figure out what’s on Jose’s mind to keep fielding Rooney. Heard he wanted to reinvent Rooney etc. Jose even mentioned that he hoped Rooney would forgive him or something.. for some super rigorous training or what? Apparently he felt Rooney still had a “role” to play but exactly what? Can it still be done at his age? Not at MU’s losing points expense I hope. Got some big games coming up. Still up for experimentation?

football Einstein 276 - September 28, 2016 Reply

Jose, i know you are cool about it, playing the long game. What’s a few weeks compared to Sir Alex’s decades. But think of us, man! Not with Pep grinning from the other side town. Heard he’s gone to do a photo shoot because life is, you know, a breeze! Next, he will probably do some canoeing and sightseeing..

Emeka - September 28, 2016 Reply

You all are a bunch of ungrateful fools how many united players have been able to achieve what he has achieved and done for the club how many English players have achieved more than him on the pitch till date or how many of you have been able to achieve just half of what he has achieved you all are jealous and ungrateful but watch and see he will have the last laugh

Duncan - September 28, 2016 Reply

I don’t think it’s ungrateful to drop a player for 3 years of poor form. Definitely the physical side is a problem, but I wouldn’t say Zlatan is any quicker. For me the psychological side has been his biggest problem. As he’s tried to become the football statesman, captain of all he surveys, legend of the game up there with the greats, his form has got worse and worse. He was always a confidence, streaky player, but over recent years the pressure of trying to achieve and live up to a legendary status has weighed him down in my opinion. I just don’t think he’s cut out for all the responsibilities and scrutiny he’s taken on, few are. He should never have been made captain of anything, that would have done his career the biggest favour. All that mental energy saved would have been spent on football and the scattered thinking that you see in the pitch from him in his positional play and when receiving the ball would have been reduced. It’s a theory anyway.

Marco - September 28, 2016 Reply

The young Rooney played by instinct, much the same was as Michael Owen did or Marcus Rashford does today. Fergie pretty much let him carry on like this from 2004 to 2008 when we had a very fluid front three in Rooney, Ronaldo, and Tevez. Then it was Tevez doing the spade work while Rooney and Ronaldo roamed up front scoring goals. Once Ronaldo and Tevez departed, a lot of the burden carried by them shifted onto Rooney. Berbatov wasn’t the type of player to dig in and win the ball from deep positions and so we saw Rooney dropping back and acting as ball-winner in the middle. Then he was pushed out wide, but always he’d be tracking back and defending.

Van Gaal, and to a lesser extent, Moyes, coached what remained of Rooney’s footballing instinct out of him. He’s not a Scholes or a Giggs in the midfield. He’s not much use in the holding position because he wants to be all over the pitch. His shooting prowess has deserted him. He used to belt the ball like Pogba does today. He’s not a leader on the pitch like Robbo or Keane, or even Martin Buchan was. Mourinho was right in saying that Rooney plays as a number 10. That’s his best position. Unfortunately for him, we have younger and quicker players vying for that spot who deserve it on merit.

Wayne Rooney can still do a job for us. His vast experience in big games is invaluable and rubs off on the younger players. Use his talents sparingly and we may see Rooney’s Indian summer. But that implies that Rooney himself accepts a limited role and therein lies the problem. I hope we can resolve it.

Denton Davey - September 29, 2016 Reply

“we may see Rooney’s Indian summer”

wanna bet ?

Marco - September 29, 2016 Reply

Why not?

Mike - September 29, 2016 Reply

I don’t know why this is news. Dude was done for at least the past two years. Would he have had such a long stay of execution if he was Spanish, or German etc.

Maybe you lot should not build your players up too much beyond their actial capacity and accept their averageness.

This will make your lows during the inevitable failure much more easier to accept.

I like rooney. He was a good player who had to very good seasons. That’s it. He was never world class. Looking at his generation Messi, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Suarez, Neymar, Zlatan, Henry were far far superior players in his positiion. From Utd players Rio Ferdinand and Evra were world class in their positions as they were the top 3 players in their positions for a 2-3 year period

I am sure some of you will argue. So I ask where is Rooneys Ballon d’Or top 3 nominations. Where are the transfer sagas linking him to Barca Real Bayern where the really world class, creme dd LA creme eventually settles. All this measures indicate he was not world class but an English class player. He was much better than all English players of Hus generation. But he was never world class.

So stop piling on the fat scouse. He just did the human thing and started thinking he was as good as you guys made him out to be. It takes a very special person to not believe ones own hype when everyone around you declares you are better than you are. And Rooney is no different.

Emmyleo Balbao - September 29, 2016 Reply

love your comment MIKE…..
Wanye is just a world class player who never live up to the hype….
He was never a faithful United player, he remain a united player due to the fat payment offer by the Moyesish United era.
even After 2010world cup, Harry Rednap says he isn’t worth $15M…..
Never mind me, i lost passion for him immediately he tender his first transfer request.
most of his goal record internationally are against lesser oppositions.
He may find his feet in MLS or in the Chinese league

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