Comment: How long can Manchester United wait for the Wayne Rooney of old to return?
The pieces of Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United jigsaw appear to be falling neatly into place, but you wonder whether the increasingly jagged edges around Wayne Rooney’s game can fit into his complex puzzle.
United’s 3-2 win against Southampton at St Mary’s Stadium was arguably their most promising display of the season so far, with their response to a slow start and an early Southampton goal from Graziano Pelle confirming they have taken a stride or two forward from the inconsistent outfit that secured a fourth placed finish in the Premier League last season.
With Anthony Martial offering up more glimpses of his glorious potential by scoring two classy goals, keeper David De Gea confirming his world class status with some sparkling saves and the duo of Memphis Depay and Juan Mata provided the stardust you expect from a player representing Manchester United, Van Gaal’s team are starting to purr.
Yet while the Van Gaal era is beginning to develop a promising identity, the relic of the old regimes who has scored 233 goals for United since his arrival at the club in 2004 is looking like yesterday’s man.
Granted, this was captain Rooney’s first game back in the United team after a spell in the treatment room, but he barely contributed to this away day victory as he the played out his 11th Premier League game without threatening a goal.
Where once Rooney was the lead singer of the United choir, the 29-year-old is now being reduced to the role of back-up singer in Van Gaal’s boy band.
Don’t tell Wayne, but he is the Shane Lynch or the Jason Orange of this new-look side and you wonder how long his ruthless Dutch manager will continue to accommodate such a passenger.
Rooney looked off the pace once again at St Mary’s Stadium on a day when United’s latest heroes edged themselves to the top of the charts, with the immaculate Martial already looking like a probable successor to the ageing skipper.
Van Gaal openly admitted that his club paid well over the odds to sign this 19-year-old Frenchman on transfer deadline day, but what a wonderful impression he has made in his first week as a United player.
His brilliant goal against Liverpool last weekend was followed up by a decent display in the Champions League against PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday, with his third United performance adding to his already exalted reputation.
The coolness Martial displayed in turning and finishing his first big chance of the match as he drew United level after 34 minutes again revived memories of his compatriot Thierry Henry in his pomp. Maturity generally comes with age, but this kid already looks ready to shine.
Martial’s classy finish when Maya Yoshida committed defensive suicide with a woeful backpass five minutes into the second half was equally thrilling, with his overall contribution to the game putting Rooney into the shade in no uncertain terms.
United’s third goal offer another glimpse of the new side Van Gaal is assembling, with a moment of magic from Depay giving him a chance to shoot at goal and when his effort crashed off the post, Mata was on hand to tap home the clinching goal.
Amid all this attacking promise, Rooney was little more than an anonymous spectator, with Van Gaal’s eagerness to get his leader back into the team for this challenging trip to England’s south coast not backed up by the performance he would have wanted.
With Martial already staking a claim to make the lone striker role his own, Rooney needs to be used by Van Gaal in a more reserved position and yet he does not offer the kind of invention United might expect if Ander Herrera, Ashley Young or Bastian Schweinsteiger were starting in his place.
You only needed to glance at Twitter during the game to appreciate that while United fans were content with their team’s display, Rooney’s performance was standing out for all the wrong reasons: