Somewhere in a roomy cabin in Manchester sits a man with a smile on his face. His gumption is palpable as he looks down at his list. Ed Woodward should be a happy man after all. The executive vice-chairman of Manchester United had an unenviable task, that of kick-starting Manchester United in the post-Sir Alex era. Once more.
Sometime last season, as Louis Van Gaal hit the floor *insert bodies hit the floor lyrics here* in front of Arsene Wenger, United fans collectively mouthed ‘What the f**k?’ His game-plan, his style of play, even his mere presence in the dugout was disappointing. And no one was more under the scanner than Woodward. So the man went on a mission. He got the wheels rolling on an ambitious project and drew up a checklist. Today that checklist looks like this –
Bring Mourinho to Old Trafford ✓
Bring in a world class center forward ✓
Bring in a center back ✓
Buy the world’s most expensive player ✓
After 3 seasons of unprecedented horseshit, Manchester United meant business again. Statement signings, a new manager with proven credentials and an enviable transfer chest meant that the Red Devils began the season as title contenders. And then, Manchester City happened. In all the brouhaha surrounding the arrivals of Mourinho, Ibrahimovic, Pogba and others, Guardiola began the revolution in the sky blue half of Manchester. And when the two sides met, the Citizens had the measure of their cross-town rivals.
Talks of a crisis emerged. Pogba was not performing. Ibra too static. Mou too inflexible with tactics. And among them all, the curious case of Wayne Rooney. In that checklist of Woodward, one item remained unticked.
Sell Wayne Rooney ✘
This last item had some gravitas. After all, Rooney is a Manchester United legend. Ever since his debut as a youngster, Wayne has gone on to become an almost automatic inclusion in the United matchday squad. This despite the fact that he has twice publicly put down transfer requests, almost signed for Chelsea when Mourinho was in charge and constantly held the club to ransom.
And at the time of all this brouhaha, Rooney was among the best forwards in world football, having added a tenacity and leadership quality that saw him promoted to captain on occasion.
But, as the club’s season under Mourinho began, it was evident, even as they made a winning start, that Rooney was at the center of United’s somewhat pensive football – slowing down play, dithering on the ball, getting caught in possession. All trademarks of an amateur. All displayed by the captain of Manchester’s leading club. And it is not a problem of stifling tactics that has been used to justify Paul Pogba’s slow start to life at Manchester. Rooney as a player is now less of a ball-winner and more of a poacher. Perhaps, playing him up front might work wonders for the form and confidence of a player who is undeserving of an automatic starting spot for even his national team.
And for the longest time, Mourinho resisted dropping his captain. He even backed him publicly. Until they lost 3 in a row, that is. With his reputation as an invincible manager on the line, Mou finally made the call. For 90 minutes, it paid dividends. The Red Devils looked faster, more assured and more relaxed when attacking with the ball. Off the ball, they seem to have more energy to win it back. With and without the ball, in attach and in defense, Manchester United looked better off without him.
Whether this is really down to dropping Rooney, or a small tweak to the system made by Mourinho, we might never know. What we do know is this – Rooney is not the player he could have been. He is no longer an exciting 20-something with the ability to take over world football. That ship has long since sailed. Now the Rashfords, Martials and Lingards of the world are taking over. That is not to say that he is finished…far from it. He may rediscover the magic, like Chris Smalling’s said, but playing out of position and looking short of confidence and fitness, perhaps the striker is better off seeking pastures anew. Moving him on will be difficult, but not impossible. Perhaps, it is time to wave goodbye to a modern Manchester United icon. Because, like it or not, Wayne is on the wane.
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