For the first time in more than a decade, Manchester United will travel to Anfield without the influential Wayne Rooney. He’ll be there of course, on the bench and part of the match day squad. Not the influential Wayne Rooney though. That Wayne Rooney, the goal-scoring, match-winning Wayne Rooney, that version of the man is long gone. Let down by poor leadership and weak management.
There’s no doubting his service to Manchester United. Or England, for that matter. He’s won everything with United; league titles, the FA Cup, the Champions League and more. He’s scored more goals than anyone for England, it’s likely that he’ll go on and become Manchester United’s leading scorer too. For what he’s won and the career he’s had, he is an undisputed great for both club and country.
But not right now. Not as he is.
His decline is a natural one. Rooney started his career at 16 and has played 720 games in a long and exhausting career. With a physique closer to that of a retired boxer than an elite athlete, Rooney was never going to maintain his dynamic and tireless style of play into his mid-to-late thirties. At 31, he’s at the beginning of the end and cannot be considered a pivotal part of the first team. Mourinho has been forced to make the difficult decision that David Moyes and Louis van Gaal were either blind to or too afraid to make.
The worst bit of this is Sir Alex Ferguson had made it easy for Moyes. Ferguson was the master at sniffing out a player’s weaknesses. When a player was slowing down, his place in the squad was unsettling the group or he was suddenly a detriment to his teammates, he’d be gone. Ruud van Nistelrooy, David Beckham, Paul Ince. Even Roy Keane! When your time was up, it was up. That was Manchester United.
When Sir Alex Ferguson signed Robin van Persie in 2012, everybody immediately began trying figure out how the partnership with Wayne Rooney would work. As the season wore on, it became more and more about Robin van Persie and less about Wayne Rooney. In the season’s biggest games, he was in the supporting cast rather than his customary lead role. At the Bernabeu, he was shifted out to the right-hand side to accommodate both van Persie and Danny Welbeck, while at home he was removed entirely and forced to watch Manchester United take on Real Madrid from the comfort of the home dugout. Ferguson had already seen the warning signs and felt Rooney wasn’t the player he used to be. That was three years ago.
Instead of allowing the player to move on under the narrative of a recently declared transfer request, Moyes put an arm round Rooney, convinced him to stay and offered him a bumper new five-year contract. After Moyes’ failure came Louis van Gaal. Surely a coach of his stature could see the cracks that were starting to show? It seems not. Rooney was made club captain and promoted to an almost untouchable status. Instead of being allowed to decline quietly, used sparingly and retain an important (albeit a bit-part) role in the squad, Rooney has been overworked, overused and relied upon too heavily. Now the most inevitable of declines is loud, ugly and it threatens to overshadow a truly wonderful career.
Those that are in Rooney’s corner will point to his move into midfield and cite numerous examples of players who prolonged their careers by adapting and changing their roles within a team. The problem for Rooney, apart from the complete lack of experience or knowledge in such a technically demanding and nuanced position like central midfield, is his character. The fire seems to have finally gone out.
The old Rooney was a snarling, spitting ball of fury that bulldozed his way through defenders, with or without the ball. He would score goals through sheer determination and bravery, never mind his incredible ability. One of his best goals for United, that stupendous volley against Newcastle, was borne out of anger at a refereeing decision and was as much a release of frustration as it was a fantastic piece of skill.
Now though that fight, steel and determination that was once evident every time he went out on the pitch has left him almost entirely. Watching his feeble, muted response to a Slovenian player manhandling Marcus Rashford this week highlighted the point. The Rooney of yesteryear would have been shoulder to shoulder with Rashford, fighting his corner and defending the teenager. It was sad to see Rooney so devoid of the passion that once made him so formidable.
Whether it’s fatherhood, the captaincy or just plain old maturity, it is not the Wayne Rooney we’ve been used to seeing. Father Time catches up with all of us I’m afraid, this might just be his turn.
The undeniable decline in Rooney’s performances over the last few years does lend weight to the suggestion that he should have been treated the way Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes were in their final years at Old Trafford.
Over the past four seasons, starting with Manchester United’s most recent title success, Rooney’s contribution of goals and assists has been steadily decreasing, his ability to create chances is no longer at the level it used to be and his waning influence means he now plays fewer forward passes each match. That final statistic is the most worrying. Should he make the transition into a holding midfield player, a switch I personally believe he cannot make, he needs to be able to move the ball forward and provide meaningful possession in the final third. It’s not unfair to question his ability to do so.
When Giggs and Scholes started to reach the end of their careers, Ferguson prolonged them by giving them a withdrawn role in the first team. They were rested more and played less, sometimes playing only one in every three games. From this position they were able to adapt their role for a specific opponent or a certain situation or they could affect the game from the bench, having had time to observe the pace and style of the match and use their experience positively. On top of all that, by only playing in matches specifically chosen to suit their individual qualities, Giggs and Scholes were rarely put in a position where their weaknesses were exposed over and over again. Rooney has certainly suffered by playing so often.
Wayne Rooney should go down as one of England’s all-time great footballers while his career at Manchester United might never be rivaled. He deserves the plaudits for the magnificent service he has given to both club and country and yet, due to the incompetence and weakness displayed by those that managed him, such an illustrious career will end in such a disappointing manner. He deserves better than that.