You don’t need to be a football Einstein to know that Wayne Rooney is past his best. Sir Alex Ferguson realised it almost four years ago; some Manchester United fans spotted the signs even earlier. The sad, slow fade of an exceptional career started in 2010 but has finally gone mainstream after his blooper reel at Watford last weekend. There will be even more scrutiny than usual on Jose Mourinho’s team selection for the match against Leicester tomorrow. If Rooney starts, it could be a case for Mulder and Scully.
Rooney’s career peaked in Munich on 30 March 2010. He was 24 years old. He scored his 18th goal in 13 games, and could not have been in better form approaching the World Cup. But he injured his ankle in the build-up to Bayern’s winning goal, came back prematurely and scored just two goals from open play for the rest of the year. By the end of 2010 he had endured a dismal World Cup, slagged off England fans on live TV and publicly tried to engineer a move to Manchester City. His career never recovered.
Apart from a couple of excellent spells in 2011 he never recaptured the dynamic brilliance of his early years. He became stuck in a cycle of negativity and perceived slights. There were other factors, including the increasing poverty of the players around him at Old Trafford and particularly his lifestyle. Rooney is 30 but in real terms he is at least 35, such are the miles on his clock. Every time he plays you can feel the impotent rage that his superpowers no longer work.
“In my final year … I felt he was struggling to get by people and had lost some of his old thrust,” wrote Ferguson in his autobiography. “But he was capable of making extraordinary contributions … as time wore on, I felt he struggled more and more to do it for 90 minutes, and he seemed to tire in games.” That was four seasons ago.
UNITED KINGDOM, Manchester : Manchester United's Scottish manager Alex Ferguson (R) and pats Manchester United's English forward Wayne Rooney (L) on the shoulder as he receives his Premier League championship medal at the end of the English Premier Leagu
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With a player as good as Rooney was, there will always be moments of residual excellence, like his run to create Juan Mata’s goal in the FA Cup final and the lovely assist for Marcus Rashford at Hull. But they are few and far between and do not compensate for the way he generally coagulates United’s attacking play. The fact he has scored only two goals since the start of February, both against Bournemouth, is not a powerful case for his retention either.
It’s hard to explain why Rooney and his acolytes seem to think the usual rules of aging don’t apply to him. Superior players like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes accepted the role of squad player in their thirties, and had plenty of glorious moments as a result. There is no shame in that, and it would not change the memory of Rooney at his peak. The quickest way to realise how far Rooney has declined is to watch a video of him in his irresistible pomp. He may not have been as good as Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi but he was still a glorious footballer - and an extremely unselfish one. Now he seems the opposite: entitled and cranky, moaning at everyone and everything except the mirror.
It does not help that he has been indulged by so many managers since Ferguson left. The desperation of David Moyes and Ed Woodward in the summer of 2013 worked in Rooney’s favour to such an extent that some people genuinely think there is a clause in his contract that he has to play. That seems unlikely, but Rooney’s perception of his own status is such that he has openly disobeyed the last two England managers. The Harry Kane corner issue was not particularly important, but the brazen insubordination was indicative of a player whose ego was out of control.
Sam Allardyce’s suggestion that Rooney played in a completely different position to the one Allardyce intended – and that this was okay – was quite bizarre. It’s easy to imagine how Ferguson would have reacted: ask Paul Ince, who was bundled off to Italy after disobeying Ferguson’s tactical instructions in 1994-95.
England manager Sam Allardyce and coach Martyn Margetson talk to Wayne Rooney
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Allardyce is great friends with Ferguson and, in the absence of a satisfactory explanation for Rooney’s continued selection, there is a suspicion that both he and Mourinho may think it is a short-term political necessity. It used to be said that sport and politics don’t mix but nowadays sport is politics: not the important stuff, where lives are at stake, but the egotism and machinations of multi-millionaires. This is a world in which things are no longer done face to face, never mind eye to eye. With that, and a press coverage of English football that is frequently moronic and infantile, it is necessary to tread extremely carefully.
It may be that at least one of Mourinho and Allardyce wanted to drop Rooney from the start but were conscious of the backlash from the press, not to mention the TV pundits who seem in thrall to Rooney. Mourinho got rid of Raul and Guti the moment he arrived in Madrid in 2010 but the endless, unwinnable politics of the Madrid dressing-room may have wearied him. The old Mourinho might have binned Rooney straight away, especially given the rumours that a number of negative dressing-room leaks in recent years have come from Rooney’s camp.
It could simply be that Mourinho and Allardyce, both proud of their man-management skills, think they can revive Rooney. Mourinho tried to sign him in 2013. He has always liked experienced English players too. But the extent of Rooney’s struggles surely outweighs any such benefits.
Rooney could be the first player to have his own Fanzone commentary, such are the extreme nature of the opinions for and against him. Most pundits seem appalled by the mere notion that he might be dropped, yet it is revealing that there is no consensus on where he should play, only that he should play. There is a fundamental, irreconcilable contradiction in having a club captain who is also a utility player. It is hard to escape the idea that he is no longer being picked on merit.
Or that he should not play as a No.10 again. Age has made him too slow in body and mind, and too weak in body to play in tight areas. It is no coincidence that his two assists this season, against Southampton and Hull, came when he had time on the ball in wide positions. With that he can be useful, if still nowhere near the level usually required of a Manchester United and England captain.
Jose Mourinho, Wayne Rooney
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If you have to play him, you could shoehorn him into a wide position. His best role is as a quarterback, but few teams can accommodate such a luxury. Rooney was excitably compared to Scholes at the end of last season but that was plain wrong: Scholes was a fly-half as well as a quarterback. Rooney looks like an MLS midfielder.
This United team, and Mourinho in particular, need the powerful symbolism of a clean slate. “I think the dressing room relaxed when Roy left,” said Sir Alex Ferguson of Roy Keane’s departure in 2005. “Relief swept the room.” A new team emerged and won the title in the next three seasons. Rooney is a different character to Keane, and there is strong evidence that he is a popular captain, but there might be a similar relief if he is left out. He has become too powerful, too great a distraction and too negative an influence on the field. In his absence Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan would be able to breathe, and maybe even play in their best positions.
It’s unlikely Team Rooney will go quietly, however, and leaving him out could be the start of a long and draining PR battle. Football is not just full of Einsteins; it’s full of Machiavellis too.