Put him out to pasture: Mourinho must accept Rooney has run his race
Former talisman is suffering badly with only four goals in 25 games for both club and country
A “decisive moment” photo can outdo a 1,000-word story any day of the week. But the widely published picture of Zlatan Ibrahimovic kicking the goal post in frustration as Manchester United slumped 3-1 to Watford last week was open to interpretation.
Booting Wayne Rooney out of the team was a popular take. The once formidable No 10 was dismal at Vicarage Road, playing alongside Paul Pogba in a muddled midfield three.
Labouring to keep up, the United captain’s loss of touch and pace was laid bare. Even his nominal speciality, the simple diagonal pass, was flying out into touch.
Rooney is suffering. He has scored only four goals in 25 games for both club and country, and he was next to useless when put back into his lone striker role against lowly Northampton Town midweek in the League Cup.
Playing him is holding back United. Moreover, his presence is undermining the youngsters.
Yes, Paul Scholes dropped further back into the midfield towards the end of his career but Scholes had learnt to patrol his turf so well he was still highly effective in a deeper role.
But midfield domination is not a natural a fit for Rooney. You can’t teach this old dog new tricks.
He can no longer set the tempo of a game, create chances or make space for others, break up play or threaten the goal himself; in short, everything you would expect from an attacking midfielder in one of the Premier League’s biggest sides.
Once a dependable talisman, Rooney is way past his best and a hindrance, not a help to Jose Mourinho who is still seeking the perfect starting XI for the most valuable football club in the world boasting the most expensive player.
Pogba is being constrained by a team set up, bizarrely, to accommodate Rooney. United should be a platform for Pogba’s unique range of skills, not to nurse Rooney into retirement.
With no Rooney in the side, Mourinho could introduce a genuine midfielder instead, Michael Carrick or Ander Herrera, and the team would be far better – fitter, productive and dynamic. The team’s biggest single problem, creating chances from open play, would surely improve.
The “Rooney Question” has become an obsessive talking point among both his supporters and adversaries, including successive England managers who also arranged their squads around the once reliable marksman.
If only Mourinho was bold enough to do the decent thing and put Rooney out to grass (he’s 31 next month). United fans would thank their manager, Mourinho could thank himself for solving his crowded midfield conundrum and neutrals would be saved from suffering the relentless Rooney dialectic.
Ryan Giggs was playing at the age of 40 and older contemporaries of Rooney are still going strong thanks to scientific advancements allowing players to sustain their peak levels for longer.
Alas, the genes have not been so kind to Rooney. He peaked some time ago and is no longer fit enough to be counted as a key squad member at Old Trafford, let alone in the starting line-up of club and country.
He may well have been England’s best player these past 10 years, but even in his prime Rooney was no Maradona, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, George Best, Bobby Charlton or Eric Cantona.
Yet for reasons unknown, he remains the star around which other, better players must orbit. There must be a case of myopia and/or sycophancy among his courtiers at Old Trafford, with a touch of the emperor’s new clothes syndrome.
Misplaced loyalty, cowardice towards a dressing room legend, naivety – call it what you will, but if Pep Guardiola were the United boss, Rooney would have been axed by now.
There are better players in his position for both club and country now. Mourinho has got to be brave enough to leave Rooney out, starting this weekend against champions Leicester.
Mourinho has to answer the Rooney Question once and for all or he find himself on the end of a boot.