It’s been a whirlwind of a summer for Manchester United cornerstone Wayne Rooney. He captained England to a disappointing quarterfinals knockout at the hands of puny Iceland, racking up a grand total of zero assists and one converted penalty despite England being favored in all four matches. He watched United overhaul their entire club, bringing Jose Mourinho onto the bench and Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Henrik Mkhitaryan into their first team. His summer finished with his participation in a fascinatingly dull testimonial match, a 0-0 draw with Everton on a rainy Wednesday night while still being club captain and just 30 years of age. Amid all of the hoopla and change though resides a pressing question for club and player, one which must be sorted out with conviction very soon indeed. Is Wayne Rooney good enough for this edition of Manchester United?
Between his signing with United in 2004 and Sir Alex Ferguson leaving the club in 2013, Rooney spent a decade on top of the world. He led United in scoring four times, made seven straight FIFA covers, and staked his claim as one of the most popular players in the world. Rooney also led the Red Devils to immense success, winning the Premier League five times, the League Cup three times, and the 2007-2008 Champions League title. He also did this:
We all know about the club’s decline since the departure of Sir Alex, but Rooney’s performance has slipped a bit alongside it. His scoring rate has decreased from a goal every two matches to a goal every three, without a corresponding increase in assists. Positionally he has spent less time as a true striker and more time in midfield, highlighted by last year’s run of matches as a central mid in a 4-1-4-1 alongside Ander Herrera, yet his key passing numbers have stayed largely the same and his pass completion percentage resides in the low eighties, perfectly adequate but no more than that. Never a speedster, his physical prime ended a couple years ago and he has had issues maintaining his physique, which does not bode well as he passes 30 years old. Where players like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes made up for their declines with improvements in passing range and positioning, Rooney sent a higher percentage of his passes backward than any other midfielder at the club.
Despite all that, Rooney’s spot in the squad is up in the air less due to his decline and more due to the influx of attacking talent brought in by Mourinho. Wayne was still a solid starter on last season’s squad, notching a solid six assists to go with his seven goals from open play in only 27 league matches. Like the rest of United’s front line he was clearly inhibited by the United system, but he was still plenty capable of a pretty strike when the time struck.
The problem is that while Rooney has stagnated (at best), the club have brought in better players all around him. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, though older than Wayne, is still in the running for best striker in the world, having delivered 38 goals and 13 assists last season in France’s League One. Paul Pogba is the most expensive signing in soccer history and is coming off an eight goal, twelve assist season playing as a rangy midfielder with license to attack. Henrik Mkhitaryan is a trequartista in his prime who notched eleven goals and fifteen assists at Borussia Dortmund last year.
Rooney’s preferred positions have been striker, number 10, and creative hustling midfielder, but all three of the players above are better at each of those positions than Rooney is. The last time Wayne was played consistently on the wing was 2009, and not only was that was hardly a rousing success, but United also have better wide players in Anthony Martial and Juan Mata who have played successfully on the wings in the Premier League already. Even if he wanted to drop back into a more defensive role, he’s not a natural distributor and should not be able to get in to the squad over Ander Herrera, Bastian Schweinsteiger, or Morgan Schneiderlin. The team that was once built around a transcendent Rooney now seems to have blocked out an aging one.
Though Mourinho’s first choice eleven should not include Rooney, that’s far from meaning that he has no place with United. As mentioned in this Tottenham preview, top clubs tend to fill only around 70% of their minutes with their starting eleven, and Rooney’s positional versatility would allow him to spot several positions in case of injury. Chairman Ed Woodward may have brought in the brightest attacking talents on the market, but this is not a roster deep with forwards. Wayne can join Marcus Rashford in spelling Zlatan up top, slide into attacking midfield if Henrik needs a match off, or slot in to central midfield if the lineup demands it.
There are obviously a ton more factors to a move like this, from Rooney’s positions as captain and global club ambassador to the possibility of Juan Mata being sold to the concept of benching one of the highest paid players in the world, but United brought in Jose Mourinho to manage the players as well as the tactics. There will be plenty of space for Rooney to thrive in this edition of Manchester United, but Mourinho has to have the conviction to leave Wayne Rooney out of the first choice starting eleven.