Is Jose Mourinho deliberately setting Wayne Rooney up for a fall ahead of the new season?
“Sometimes you have to make choices in your career and at the minute it’s probably better for me to play deeper. Next season with Manchester United, that’s where I see myself playing.”
The words of Manchester United and England captain Wayne Rooney as he prepared to lead his country into the Euro 2016 finals this summer provided definitive confirmation that his days as a free-scoring striker are at an end.
It was the conclusion his critics had arrived at long ago, and yet suddenly the ground has shifted beneath his feet all over again.
As Jose Mourinho made his first appearance before the media in his new role as Manchester United manager, Rooney’s application to be rebranded as a midfield playmaker was swiftly rejected.
Mourinho went out of his way to make it abundantly clear that Rooney would not be used as a midfielder in his remodelled team, insisting his role will be scoring the goals that will take him past the United scoring record that was set by the great Bobby Charlton back in 1973.
Rooney currently stands just four behind Charlton’s mark of 249 goals for the Old Trafford giants, yet it has long since been evident that the player who will soon be the greatest scorer for United and England is a spent force as a lead marksman.
Rooney’s failings over the last couple of seasons provide compelling evidence to confirm his days as a serial goal-getter are gone for good, but Mourinho begs to differ, in public at least.
“He will never, with me, be playing 50 metres from the goal,” stated the new United manager, as he spoke to the media for the first time at Old Trafford earlier this month.
“For me he will be a No 9 or a No 10 or a nine-and-a-half, but with me he will never be a No 6 or even a No 8.”
At first glance, those comments appear to be a glowing endorsement of a striker who has long since fallen into the ‘past his best category’, yet we may not have to wait too long to discover whether they are, in fact, a devious trap thrown down by Mourinho.
It would not be the first time this Portuguese tactician has deployed a clever mind-bending trick to confuse his audience, and maybe he has set Rooney up for an inevitable fall.
With the United boss having already signed attacking star Henrikh Mkhitaryan and £100m France midfielder Paul Pogba next on his transfer radar, it is clear that Mourinho is not going to ask players to perform out of position in the new season.
So where does Rooney fit into a team that is likely to play Mourinho’s 4-3-2-1 formation?
It’s a question even Rooney may be asking himself right now, as he competes with young guns Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial – as well as high-profile new arrival Zlatan Ibrahimovic – for a place in Mourinho’s starting line-up, with the United skipper offering up this explanation for the role Mourinho wants him to play:
“It’s almost like a free role and I am excited to play it,” said Rooney.
“He said to me about playing No.10. That is something I’ve now got to work on and get myself in the right position to score goals. I have scored goals all through my career and I have no doubt in my goalscoring ability. Hopefully I can do that this season.
“I like to be involved in the game and I am now playing for Jose who, straight away, has no fears about players coming deep if they want to.
“It’s a different way of playing, a different manager, different ideas and if I can bring my game and qualities to this team, then I know I can create chances and score goals.”
There is no doubt that Mourinho is a long-standing admirer of Rooney, with his burning desire to bring the striker to Chelsea in the summer of 2013 evidence enough.
Rooney came close to sealing that move to Stamford Bridge as he haggled over a new contract with United, sparking the inflammatory suggestions from his outgoing boss Alex Ferguson that he had asked for the transfer to be completed.
Now, Mourinho is finally getting his chance to work with Rooney, yet the player he has on his hands in 2016 is a diluted version of a once towering Premier League star.
Rooney has scored just 20 league goals over the past two seasons, with the lack of chances coming his way in a team shackled by Louis van Gaal's negative tactical set-up partly to blame for his blunted presence as a marksman.
Though that is a poor excuse for a player who has not merited a place in the United team for a couple of years at least.
While he could be used as a lead forward on the occasions when the ageing Ibrahimovic is rested, Mourinho may not take long to confirm in his own mind that Rooney is no longer fit for purpose.
Mourinho has to decide how long he can afford to prop up a hero of yesteryear as he looks to stir up quick-fire success at Old Trafford.