Does Wayne Rooney still have a place at Manchester United?

Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick and Chris Smalling

In this summer transfer window, Manchester United has acted quickly in bringing in some top quality additions. After signing young defender Eric Bailly from Villarreal, United brought in the big guns, signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain and attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Borussia Dortmund. The pair had incredible records in goal scoring and creating, with Ibrahimovic scoring 38 goals and 19 assists for PSG and Mkhitaryan scoring 23 goals and 32 assists. With numbers that high, you can expect that both of them would warrant a place in the starting lineup. Add to them last season’s young sensations Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, youngsters with a point to prove in Memphis Depay and Adnan Januzaj, as well as Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, you can say that United are well stocked in attack.

And that leaves one question: where does that leave Wayne Rooney?

You might think that’s an easy question to answer. He’ll play where he has played many times over the past few years, where he impressed for England in the Euro’s and the friendlies before. He’ll play in midfield. But according to manager Jose Mourinho, in his first press conference, that will not be the case.

“Maybe he is not a striker anymore. Maybe he is not a number nine anymore but, with me, he will never be a number six. He will never be somebody playing 50 metres from the goal.

“You can tell me his passing is amazing. His passing is amazing but my passing is also amazing pressure. There are many players with a great pass but to be there and put the ball in the net is the most difficult thing to find. For me, he will be a nine or a 10 – a nine and a half maybe – but not a six and not even an eight.”

So Rooney will only be considered as a striker and as a number 10, behind the striker. And whatever a nine and a half is. The point is that he will not be a midfielder, and will be in direct competition with most of the players listed previously. There might seem to be lighter competition for that number ten role,with Mkhitaryan impressing most at Dortmund from the wing, but his performance in United’s first pre-season match against Wigan Athletic could bring him firmly in contention for that role. And out of the two, the Armenian will be preferred because let’s face it, Rooney is nowhere near the player he once was.

There’s a reason that Rooney was moved to midfield in the first place, and it’s not his “amazing” passing. His biggest strength in passing is his long diagonal passes, which look impressive but are ultimately non-threatening. The only thing left intact from his peak days is his willingness to chase down the ball, which does come useful in midfield. His decline does make sense when you start your top-level career as young as he did, it’s going to take a toll on your body. But just because his decline is understandable, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed.

But what about his captaincy? Surely his status as captain would be a factor worth considering his selection? While that had kept his name one of the first on the team sheet, and would give him another chance this season, Mourinho is hardly one to let a player’s captaincy get in the way of fielding his strongest team. At Real Madrid, he dropped captain and fan favourite Iker Casillas in favour of Antonio Adan, and signed Diego Lopez who went on to start ahead of Casillas. This was just before Casillas began to decline, which eventually lead to him being sold to make way for United keeper David De Gea, a move that never materialised. This shows that Mourinho isn’t afraid of dropping anyone if they underperform, not even a legendary club captain who’s won it all.

It’s pointless to hope for a return of the Rooney of old. That player was one of the best in the world, and it’s clear that Rooney has not been anywhere near that level in recent years. With some talented younger players capable of filling in the two positions Rooney can play under Mourinho, it’s inevitable that sooner or later he will be forced out. But for now, there is still a chance. Rooney’s captaincy will guarantee that he will get a chance to prove his worth for this season, and he will need to do just that if he wants to stay in the team. As he is willing to drop out of form players, Mourinho is also willing to play well-performing ones, so if Rooney can continuously turn up, he could actually earn the place his captaincy has secured for him.

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