It’s safe to say that Wayne Rooney is no longer the player that he once was. Someone who once was considered one of the most lethal strikers in the world is now a shadow his former self. His touch now heavier, his pace no slower, and pushed back into midfield to make way for other attackers. And despite the previous Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal’s insistence that he stays in the starting XI, the decline could not be avoided, and it seemed like all was lost.
Rooney has been in the headlines since the weekend, when, in United’s FA Cup third round tie against Reading, Rooney scored a goal to equal Sir Bobby Charlton’s record as United’s all-time top scorer. It doesn’t seem right for the player described above to be on the same goals tally as a legend as great a Charlton, but looking at his performance on the day, it’s as if the Rooney of old never left.
He’s had good performances in the last couple years, of course, but this was one that really turned back the clock. His aggressive runs forward, stretching the defence and pouncing on through balls, and glimpses of his instinctive positioning in the penalty area. The electricity of the old Rooney, that the Rooney of recent months and years has lacked, sparked once again.
It would be easy to point the finger at the weaker opposition, and that would be a good point. Of course, it would be easier for Rooney to perform against a Championship club then the usual Premier League opposition. He wouldn’t have been able to perform to that level against a stronger opposition, right? Right. And that’s exactly the point.
Wind your clocks back to November. Henrikh Mkhitaryan had just been omitted from the squad that drew 1-1 with Arsenal and had not been involved in a Premier League game in two months. Ahead of the upcoming Europa League group stage match against Feyenoord, manager Jose Mourinho said to the press that the Arsenal game wasn’t for him and that he needed “less pressure and better conditions for him to express his qualities.” He started that Feyenoord match, only his second start for United, where he definitely expressed his qualities as United ran out 4-0 winners. He’d start his first league match ten days later and has been impressive ever since. Mourinho understood that Mkhitaryan needed a game where he would be more comfortable to get him performing to the best of his abilities, before playing him in more important matches.
Compare that to how Mourinho has handled Rooney. He did start out the way van Gaal did, starting Rooney in the all of the first five league matches, but then he started dropping him to the bench, and between then and early December, he started just one league game. While on the other hand, Rooney started all but two Europa League game in that time. Rooney had scored two goals and three assists from the five games he played.
But he hasn’t been able to transfer those performances to league matches, and even in those games he wasn’t truly “expressing his qualities.” So, when the Reading game came around, Mourinho started Rooney while resting star players Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba. This selection afforded him more freedom on the pitch, in other words, better conditions, and he was facing a second tier opposition at home, meaning less pressure. His performance in that game spoke for itself.
Also, something else that Mourinho did that must have had an impact on Rooney’s confidence is his insistence that Rooney will not be playing deep in midfield. From day one, he maintained that Rooney will be playing in an attacking role. Whereas van Gaal before him would play Rooney in midfield just so that he’d be on the pitch, Mourinho would play him where he’d have more impact in attack, and more importantly, in positions where he had once shone.
So now all that’s left is to see what happens next. Mourinho has tried, within reasonable limits, to give Rooney the platform to perform, and Rooney has now responded. The question now is if that performance can be continued. It would, of course, be unreasonable to expect Rooney to become the Rooney of old once more, age has caught up to him enough, but if he could keep the type of performance he showed against Reading, he’d be a force to be reckoned with. If not, then Mourinho has other talented players in his squad to turn to.