How things have changed over the past one year. Agreed, there was a sense of optimism when Louis van Gaal took his squad to the United States of America for their preseason tour but the feeling, right now, surrounding this football club is almost euphoric. With Jose Mourinho taking over the reigns, United fans, at least most of them, got what they asked for a very long time. So the shift in the outlook is understandable but one person who shouldn’t be as relaxed and happy as everyone else around the team is Wayne Rooney.
The United captain, who led England to one of its most embarrassing Euros exit, against Iceland, has joined the team for the Preseason tour to China. But the problem in front of the manager as well as the player would be his utility to the team. It is understood as per the recent reports that the Portuguese manager is still looking to persist with Rooney as his captain. But this won’t necessarily mean that he will continue to enjoy the captain’s privilege as he did last season. It will be very interesting to see how the former Chelsea manager, who has been a great admirer of Rooney in the past, handles the England captain.
To start off, Rooney has not been in the best of his form for the past couple of seasons, which has also coincided with the emergence of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. He was used by Van Gaal as his striker for most of the last season and it did not work out so well for him or the team. This and several other factors saw the manager push the player in to the midfield, with Rashford being preferred over him upfront. Eventually, he himself agreed that the deeper position might suit him better.
“I’ve seen players, and played with some, who have changed what they did and become better as a result. That’s a natural progression. I’ve moved back and played in midfield for the last few months at United and it’s a natural way of football. It happens. I feel, with my football intelligence, I can play there and I can further my career as well.”
But the manager has now changed and so will the strategies. Mourinho made it pretty clear in his first press conference, that he doesn’t see Rooney as a midfielder and has to be in the striking distance of the goal. This is where the trouble or complications, to put it mildly, starts for the current United captain. If one looks at Mourinho’s past formations and strategies, he usually persists with the 4-2-3-1. With the addition of attacking talents like Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the vacancies up front are quickly diminishing. As per Mourinho, he sees “Rooney as a number 10 or 9 or maybe 9.5“
“It is normal that a player at his age will change a little bit. One thing that will never change is his natural appetite to put the ball in the net. Maybe he is not a striker, not a No. 9 anymore. But with me he will never be a No. 6, playing 50m from goal.
“Yes, his passing is amazing but mine is also amazing without pressure. Many players have a great pass, but to put the ball in the net is the most difficult. He will be a No. 9, a No. 10, a No. 9.5, but never a No. 6 or a No. 8.”
This means he will be competing with Ibrahimovic and Rashford or even Mata and Mkhitaryan, for his position in the starting XI. If the formation allows only one striker, Rooney will most probably have to outdo Ibrahimovic which might not be that easy for the club captain. With so much at stake, Rooney will have an important preseason in front of him. Even if he doesn’t appear in the playing XI, as confirmed by Mourinho a couple of weeks back, it is of paramount importance for him to impress Mourinho.
“I am taking the English boys [to China] – that I wasn’t expecting but they’re coming. I will take them but I’m not going to play them. What is more important is to work, to be together, to live together 24-hours every day during the week.”
The preseason will be Mourinho’s first marker, on the basis of which he will plan and decide his strategies and personnel involved. Mourinho has been brutal when it comes to dropping his captains if it helps the team, as seen with John Terry in his last stint. It will be unlikely for Mourinho to drop Rooney straightaway for the first game of the season but Rooney can now no longer afford his slow starts to the season, something that he has been (in)famous for. The first few months will be significant in deciding what Mourinho has in store for the English record goalscorer, but if the England captain doesn’t get off the mark quickly, it doesn’t seem to end all that well for him.