“#RojoIsRed!” reads the regular hashtag from Marco Rojo’s Twitter account; a statement of the Argentine’s affinity for Manchester United or a lesson in Spanish? Language aside it’s fair to say that Rojo’s stint at Old Trafford thus far has been far from smooth. Injuries, bouts of unprofessionalism, and a reported falling out with Louis van Gaal, appeared to indicate at one stage that the 25-year-old’s future lay away from United.
Rojo returned to the club this summer seemingly overweight after failing to join up with Van Gaal’s squad for the pre-season tour of the United States because of a failure to renew his work permit. Rojo apparently also angered Van Gaal by not revealing the extent of an injury that forced the player off in his first game of the season against Southampton.
There was even talk of Rojo being offered to Monaco as part of the deal for Anthony Martial, and rumours have surfaced of a potential departure in the January window, with Bruno Martins Indi tipped as a replacement.
Dark clouds, then, over the £16 million defender’s future. Yet, the outlook has been brighter for Rojo more recently. After United’s comprehensive defeat at Arsenal, where Ashley Young played at left-back, Rojo was restored to the first team for the trip to Goodison.
It was an impressive outing in a fine victory over Everton. He linked up well on the left with Martial, passing the ball to the French teenager on 17 occasions, as well as providing a sumptuous cross for Ander Herrera to head home. In fact the Rojo’s return – together with Phil Jones – gave United a solidity at Goodison that was so lacking at the Emirates.
Rojo even earned Van Gaal’s praise, with the United boss stating that Rojo has “great potential in him to become a very good player,” and that “when he improves and he can reach a very high level.”
The Dutchman, along with captain Wayne Rooney, even defended Rojo when the Russian press ridiculed the defender this week. Rojo suffered an unsuccessful stint at Spartak Moscow, with local journalists pointing out that the Argentinean “wasn’t very good” before asking Rooney “how regularly he went past Rojo” in training “because everyone was doing it in Russia.”
Rojo couldn’t quite ram his critics’ words down their throats as United battled to a 1-1 draw in Moscow on Wednesday night. In fact the defender was subbed off on the hour for Daley Blind – perhaps not too much of a surprise given this was only his third start of the season and a second game in the space of five days. In Van Gaal’s philosophy Rojo still lacks “match rhythm” and of course his fitness too.
Given Rojo’s pace, strength, ability in the air – and his left-footed distribution from the back – the fact that he hasn’t established himself sooner is a source of consternation. The tools are there for the Argentinean to develop into a fine defender, but that transformation from potential star to first team regular is proving to frustratingly slow.
However, the benefits of a fit, consistent, Rojo at left-back are significant – if he can stay in van Gaal’s good books. After all, there is a Luke Shaw-shaped hole in United’s defence that cannot be fixed with multi-functional players, no matter how hard Young tries.
Then there’s the fact that Rojo has had over a year’s worth of van Gaal’s philosophical indoctrination, which places the 25-year-old ahead of any potential January recruit, including Martins Indi. Rojo must know by now what his manager’s demands are and his role in the system.
Rojo also seems to get what it ‘means’ to be a United player and is willing to work for his right to play for United, as opposed to his more illustrious compatriot Angel di Maria, who took flight to Paris with little hesitation.
That quality counts for much with the Manchester Derby up next. Rojo will no doubt be seeking a better performance this time around compared to his previous outing against City, where he managed to damage his shoulder after diving in rashly to win the ball. Though, in truth, it wasn’t a good day to be a United centre-half. The defender’s pace is required to counter City’s nippy frontline, even if it’s shorn of Sergio Agüero and possibly David Silva. The horrors of the Emirates are still fresh in the memory.
Indeed, there is an opportunity for Rojo to establish a foothold in the first team, although that is now firmly up to the player to make it happen. Rojo has few chances left and certainly cannot risk antagonising his manager once again, especially after the Dutch coach sang the player’s praises this week.
“#RojoIsRed,” he proudly proclaims. It’s time for the defender to prove it and if he does that then Rojo will find himself on the red road to redemption.