When José Mourinho first took the helm at Manchester United last summer wild transfer speculation greeted the Portuguese’s arrival. The summer promised a raft of new players, with many more on the way out in another window of change at Old Trafford. The usual suspects were prepared for exit, with Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones among those singled out for special attention. Rojo’s apparent poor quality and Jones’ injury record made exit all the more likely. Somehow, it hasn’t worked out like that.
“#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.
When the summer transfer window closed few would have anticipated that former Sporting Lisbon defender Marcos Rojo would establish himself as the best signing of Manchester United’s season.
Acquired on a five-year deal for £16 million, the Argentine became the club’s third recruit of the off-season, following an impressive domestic season in Portugal in which Sporting finished runners up, with the second best defensive record in the division. Rojo also featured in six of his nation’s seven games at the World Cup in Brazil, including the final, during which Argentina suffered a devastating extra-time defeat at the hands of champions Germany. It was an impressive season for a relatively inexperienced defender – both at club and international level – and for the Old Trafford faithful, a sign of things to come.
The 24-year-old had attracted strong interest from Arsenal, Liverpool and Southampton, even prior to his World Cup involvement, with a move to the Premier League seeming inevitable. Clearly Ronald Koeman recognised the Argentine’s quality; a compliment in itself. As the season progresses it is becoming increasingly difficult to find fault with the Saints’ recruitment standards. The south coast outfit have enjoyed an inspirational league campaign, and, having conceded just 17 goals in 24 league games, boast the best defensive record in the English top flight. Rojo was touted as an ideal addition at St Mary’s, but Louis van Gaal swooped in, undetected, to sign his man.
Recognised predominately as a central defender, but also capable of chipping in at left-back, Rojo’s versatility was undoubtedly a major factor behind the United head coach’s interest. Despite featuring most regularly as centre-back for Sporting Lisbon, a starring role on the left side of defence during the summer World Cup led many to believe Van Gaal had captured another full-back. In hindsight, this was clearly not the case. The Dutchman holds a firm admiration for the former Spartak Moscow defender, undoubtedly catalyzed by his displays in South America.
“He has ability, physical strength and a willingness to learn… that means he has a very bright future ahead of him,” Van Gaal claimed upon Rojo’s arrival. “He had a very strong World Cup and has been playing in Europe for a couple of years now.”
Rojo’s was certainly the most contentious arrival of those at Old Trafford during the summer window. The departure of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand exposed a significant lack of depth in the back four, and despite success in South America, 24-year-old Rojo was considered a capable replacement for the veteran pair by very few. Question marks were also raised regarding the manner of Rojo’s transfer – he forced his way out of Sporting, giving the Primeira Liga outfit little option but to demand as high a fee as possible. This was viewed as a signal of the player’s negative temperament and lack of integrity by some – and evidence of burning ambition by others. Regardless, it is clear that Rojo recognised the magnitude of such an opportunity.
At just 24 years of age, Rojo has been a regular feature of Louis van Gaal’s ever-evolving defence – commanding a back-line of three or four, depending on the Dutchman’s mood. Of all the defenders on the Old Trafford books, it is now fair to argue that the Argentine – a World Cup finalist and regular Champions League participant – is the most experienced. Jonny Evans may be three years Rojo’s senior, but the Northern Irishman has never quite been able to cut it at the highest level. Rojo is now Van Gaal’s most dependable defender – a sentiment reinforced by the confidence of his recent performances.
Despite dislocating his shoulder in November and suffering a thigh strain in December, the Argentine youngster has experienced few difficulties settling into life at Old Trafford. Unexpectedly, Rojo’s committed displays have only served to enhance his reputation with the club’s fans. Despite the turbulence season, Rojo has shown excellent form throughout.
Assured, composed and ruthless: Rojo’s physical presence was evident after just a few games for the club. He has the mentality and technical ability needed to star for the three-time European champions. Comfortable on the ball and un-phased by the demands of possession-based football, the Argentine has also looked a natural fit within Van Gaal’s philosophy. He has also impressed in a defensive sense, averaging 2.77 tackles, 3.15 interceptions and 2.62 successful aerial duels per game this season. Ultimately, Rojo has ensured United remains tight at the back. There are also impressive early signs of leadership – the support he provided academy graduate Paddy McNair, particularly on the Irishman’s debut, has impressed.
Rojo was also United’s best defender in the draw against West Ham at Upton Park; a match drawn courtesy of Daley Blind’s last minute equaliser. The visitors looked at sea for large spells, with Rojo proving the difference between defensive conformity and an easy route to goal. Against the team that has scored more headed goals than any this season, the Argentine was up to the physical competition. It took a fabulous strike from Cheikhou Kouyate to break the deadlock, while Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia rarely threatened David de Gea.
Of course, there have been moments of hot-headedness, in which Rojo’s decision-making could have proved costly. One impulsive first-half foul on the halfway line sticks in the memory. Yet, Rojo is still young, with a tendency to make rash decisions. It shouldn’t be long before he erases these from his game. After all, his predecessors didn’t start perfectly either.
It is perhaps too early in Rojo’s career to make comparisons with Vidic, but the younger man looks capable of emulating the Serbian’s success at Old Trafford. Rojo displays real physical presence and an air of calmness when in possession, supplemented by desire to achieve success in a red shirt. Just seven months into his time with United, Rojo’s celebrations alone express a level of infatuation with the club.
Unlike many of the club’s summer arrivals, Rojo has made the transition to English football well. After an impressive start, Angel Di Maria suffered an injury setback prior to Christmas; the winger’s form hasn’t been the same since. Radamel Falcao has failed to hit the ground running following a series of underwhelming displays, and with his weekly wage burning a significant hole in the club’s coffers, the Colombian’s future at United looks increasingly uncertain. Meanwhile, Luke Shaw has hardly lived up to the £30 million fee, although the teenager boasts the advantage of having copious amounts of time on his side.
Meanwhile, Daley Blind and Ander Herrera remain the Argentine’s only real competition for the coveted ‘Signing of the Season’ accolade. Ultimately the duo has fallen victim to a lack of playing time; a result of Van Gaal’s vigorous squad rotation.
Based on a series of impressive performances and natural deduction, it is fair to conclude that Rojo has been the club’s most impressive arrival under the Dutchman’s regime; a significant achievement for a player who, unlike most last summer, practically entered the club through the back door.