Manchester United crashed to a third defeat in a week as they were beaten 3-1 by Watford, a loss that will ask serious questions about Jose Mourinho’s team.
Wayne Rooney returned to the Manchester United team in a 4-3-3 formation that seemed designed to get the best out of Paul Pogba. With Marouane Fellaini playing as the midfield pivot, Pogba and Rooney were given more advanced roles in midfield. Marcus Rashford started from the left, with Anthony Martial on the right. Chris Smalling also retained his place in the team ahead of Daley Blind. Wayne Rooney is a problem for Manchester United. There, I said it. In the summer, in his first press conference as Manchester United manager, Jose Mourinho had this to say about his captain;
“Maybe he is not a striker, not a No 9 anymore but for me he will never be a No 6, playing 50 metres from the goal. You can tell me his pass is amazing but my pass is also amazing without pressure.
“To be there and put the ball in the net is the most difficult thing. For me he will be a 9, a 10, a nine and a half but never a six or an eight.”
Yet here we are, a matter of months later, Wayne Rooney is still playing in midfield and still underperforming. The mind boggles. In the first half, Rooney played on the right of the midfield three, with Pogba to the left. The idea being that withdrawing Rooney into a deeper midfield position and playing three together could free Paul Pogba and allow United’s record signing the opportunity to have more influence on the game. It worked, to a degree.
The problem is elite football cannot carry passengers. In this 4-3-3 system, United did not have one creative outlet in the side, they had two; Pogba and Rooney. In an ideal world, both should be performing in unison, dovetailing together to control the game, dictate the tempo and support Ibrahimovic, Rashford and Martial in attacking areas. In reality, Rooney offered very little playing in this deeper position; the position Mourinho said he would never play.
For a player tasked with creating goal scoring opportunities for his teammates and controlling or dictating the patterns of play, Rooney completed far too few forward passes. His lack of influence on this team, considering his stature and role at the club, is astounding.
On the other hand, Pogba did benefit from Rooney’s withdrawn role in the first half. Playing from the left in a midfield three, Pogba was able to get forward more often and was far more of a threat in offensive areas. His long-range effort that rattled the crossbar came at a time in the game when his influence was growing and he was beginning to take control.
The second half changes killed any of that momentum and Pogba was again forced into a more withdrawn role to accommodate Rooney. Mourinho changed the shape of the side and returned to the 4-2-3-1 system that placed Rooney at its heart, in the no.10 position. Now, for the sake of the argument, if Rooney had inspired a Manchester United comeback and been influential in turning this game around, sacrificing Paul Pogba for the good of the team would be the right decision. Given what actually happened, however, this insistence on appeasing Wayne Rooney continues to perplex.
After returning to his more natural position behind the striker, you would expect Rooney to be more influential, more creative and more decisive in the final third. What happened, bizarrely, was the complete opposite. In terms of tangible moments of influence in possession of the football, Rooney was more withdrawn, further from the opposition penalty area and less effective. He does not pass the ball intelligently under pressure, he provides no intensity with his movement either with or without the ball and he is no longer a physical presence. Only this question remains; what does he actually offer?
So what of Paul Pogba, Manchester United’s £89m signing? Due to the obsession with Wayne Rooney, he was consigned to a holding midfield role alongside Marouane Fellaini. Already a weaker position for him, Pogba was unable to truly influence proceedings in the final third and was left making passes in the middle third of the pitch that, because of the ineffective Rooney, essentially became irrelevant. Pogba is capable of playing deep and starting attacks in these areas like he did for Rashford’s goal, but when the players beyond him cannot make use of the ball correctly his influence wains dramatically.
There was a period in the game when Manchester United were on top and looked like they could win the game. After Rashford’s equaliser and Juan Mata’s introduction as a substitute, United started to get on the ball and control the game, pinning Watford back into their own area and applying consistent pressure on the home side’s goal. This was due to Juan Mata’s impact as he looked United’s most creative player in the final half an hour.
Mata joined the game as a right-sided attacking player but did not hesitate to roam and get on the ball wherever he could. His ability to make short, quick passes in the final third gave Manchester United better ball rotation and lengthier spells of possession, as they looked to probe and pass their way through a packed Watford defence. Mata did more for Manchester United in half an hour than Rooney offered in 90 minutes, showing exactly what a creative no.10 should be and how they can influence a game.
After losing a third game in a row, Jose Mourinho needs to find the solutions to some key problems. Most notable is the problem of Wayne Rooney. At Real Madrid, Mourinho was not afraid to drop the captain and club legend Iker Casillas for the benefit of his team. Now, it seems, any future success he may have at Manchester United will hinge on whether he is brave enough to drop captain and club legend Wayne Rooney. It’s up to you, Jose.