No other player has epitomised Louis van Gaal’s second season at United quite like his captain. The Dutchman’s side staggered through the latter part of 2015, with December becoming statistically the worst month in the club’s long history. And, much to the chagrin of United’s support at large, the manager has simply refused to go away. Much of that analysis can be directly applied to Wayne Rooney.
United’s record goalscorer in waiting has received heavy criticism for his role in the turgid brand of football that has been on display for much of the season. However, Rooney has enjoyed an extended stay of execution, despite being a serial offender, whilst others have been consistently reprimanded for lesser crimes.
Pundits have been reluctant to criticise the England captain with another major tournament on the horizon, but for months United fans have voiced their collective ire at Rooney’s apparent immunity. The announcement of United’s starting XI triggered a minor meltdown for weeks in a row as Rooney’s name declined to disappear from the team sheet.
The worldwide football forum on Twitter has, for better or worse, continued to grow – and Rooney has been one of several players scapegoated by the group. Some of the criticism levelled at the United and England captain this season has been overly personal, but more constructive observers are as valid as the abuse has been excessive.
"Much of what once made the Evertonian so exciting to watch had seemingly deserted him – no longer was he able to bulldoze through defences with explosiveness not often seen in a player of such stocky physique. Rooney’s barnstorming goal in United’s first half rout of Tottenham Hotspur last spring had become the exception and not the norm."
Conversely, the sight of a ball bouncing off Rooney’s shin as he attempted to control it was no longer cause for surprise. Rooney’s penchant for berating referees, once considered an outward display of his insatiable appetite for winning, now appeared to be the desperate protestations of a player who knew his best days were behind him.
It has long been considered a foregone conclusion that Rooney will eclipse Sir Bobby Charlton at the summit of United’s all-time goal scoring chart – but what should be a triumphant procession of Wayne’s talent near deteriorated into a painful death march. The record will be Rooney’s, but any sense of anticipation was quelled by this season’s extended run of dire performances. Most just hoped he would hurry up and get it out of the way. Until recently.
Rooney was rightfully dropped for the Boxing Day horror show against Stoke City, but has since responded well to the demotion – claiming the club’s Player of the Month award for January as well as being directly involved in 10 of the side’s last 14 goals. Some physical attributes will unfortunately never return, but in recent weeks Rooney has shown signs of recapturing at least some of his former glory.
"Two undisputedly world-class finishes against Newcastle United and Derby County, either side of the decisive strike in United’s win at Anfield, have served to restore a measure of faith in Rooney’s ability. More encouragingly, however, is that before United’s recent games against Chelsea and Sunderland, his all round game seemed to have improved."
In the past even when Rooney’s general contribution was lacking, the striker still scored goals. But when playing alongside the electric Anthony Martial this season, Rooney has often looked like that one elder statesman commonly found on a local five-a-side pitch, toiling to keep pace with a group of young upstarts. January’s performances suggest that Rooney will not yet suffer the classic five-a-side ignominy of having to retreat into goal.
Combining for two excellent goals against Stoke City, the bones of a promising understanding between Rooney and Martial were visible for the first time. The United captain picked out Martial to finish spectacularly at the tail end of a flowing move, before the young Frenchman later squared for Rooney to round off the scoring against the Potters.
In a season where Van Gaal’s side has frequently lacked any fluency, it was refreshing to see two attacking players appear to finally be on the same wavelength. Last year, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata looked set to occupy that double act, but Herrera’s confinement to the bench for much of this campaign has put an end to that relationship. Might Rooney and Martial take up the mantle?
It is, perhaps, somewhat premature to place too great a focus on this potential partnership, but if Van Gaal’s side is to pull off a minor miracle and qualify for next season’s Champions League, the cohesion displayed between Rooney and Martial is something that has to be increasingly prevalent.
Indeed, a major facet of United’s Champions League winning side of 2008 was the intertwining talents of Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, yet the United captain has not really clicked since with a teammate in such wondrous fashion. That is not to make any hasty comparisons between Martial and Ronaldo, regardless of the Frenchman’s potential, but finding another player with whom Rooney can effectively link up with may be exactly what the Scouser needs.
Rooney’s football intelligence will likely endure any physical decline, and if he can continue to link with Martial as he has in recent weeks, United may have stumbled upon a somewhat unlikely attacking partnership. If Rooney can sustain January’s form that is – and the dip of the player’s displays against Chelsea and Sunderland are not the new normal.
"It leaves an inevitable question – just how much will the effects of time burden Rooney now that he finds himself the wrong side of 30? Until the turn of the year he looked very much like a player whose body was no longer responding the way it used to, and the psychological pitfalls of such a realisation should not be underestimated."
If Rooney has spent the last few months coming to terms with these changes then perhaps the good form in January was a sign that he is beginning to adapt.
In Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, Rooney has two strong examples of how to prolong a career once the dynamism of youth has faded. Yes, it is debatable whether Rooney has looked after his body with the same care as Giggs, but with Charlton’s record in sight, the Scouse-born forward should not lack for motivation.
Exploding onto the scene as a 16-year-old, Rooney has already spent extensive time at the top of a field where careers are relatively short. If Rooney has the desire to prolong his time in the spotlight, he must now show that the form he has displayed at the start of 2016 is not merely a temporary reprieve in what many considered to be a terminal decline.