How Jose Mourinho masterfully handled Wayne Rooney's move to the margins at Manchester United
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Wayne Rooney’s impending departure from Manchester United is how smooth it has been. A volatile and emotionally complex breakup has been handled brilliantly by Jose Mourinho.
The decline of Rooney was arguably the trickiest test of Mourinho’s first season at Old Trafford. How do you ease out the club’s most iconic player, the figurehead, captain, and leading goalscorer without managing to turn him into a twisted and disruptive presence in the dressing room?
The Portuguese was tossed a hand grenade, but somehow managed to put the pin back in.
Rather than having a difficult situation blow up in his face, Mourinho has executed a perfectly controlled explosion. It has inflicted barely any damage on the team, on Rooney, on his management or the club. He has been easing Rooney out since last summer, yet even though the player must have suspected what was happening, he has not fallen out with anyone while it did.
Not many could have pulled it off, but Rooney is on the brink of leaving and there has been no trouble. This is testimony to Mourinho’s skill, his man management, his manipulation of the media and the sheer power of his personality.
When Rooney leaves, he will do so with his reputation intact, but also on good terms with both the board and Mourinho. He may no longer be the player he was, or good enough to play for a team that wants to evolve into title challengers again, but he has remained an excellent captain, supportive in the dressing room rather than bitter about his own decline.
Rooney deserves to be applauded for that. He has grown into a fine man, a magnificent footballer who became more than just a player at United during his 13 years at Old Trafford.
Mourinho recognised those things. He built a relationship with Rooney as soon as he arrived. He has been straight with him, he has been supportive and always praised him in public. He has talked about a legend rather than just a player. Then he dropped him from the team and let him make his own decision on his future.
Mourinho has not tried to force Rooney out, he has just gently pushed him out of the team and let his captain come to his own conclusion that it is time to move on.
Even as Rooney edges closer to mind-bogglingly lucrative move to China, Mourinho insists he does not want his captain to go. He does not want him to leave, but he would never tell someone with his stature or achievements what to do. He has left everything up to the player to decide.
Yet he has been facilitating Rooney’s exit for months. Before the Premier League season began, Mourinho insisted Rooney would never play for him in midfield. "For me he will be a 9, a 10, a nine-and-a-half but never a 6 or even an 8,” he said. That was, Mourinho declared, where he is most effective.
Rooney had spent the previous six months talking about how he could see himself dropping into a deeper midfield role as he grew older. He played there at the end of last season under Louis van Gaal, and did particularly well in the FA Cup Final win over Crystal Palace. He played there too for England at the European Championships, albeit rather less impressively.
Mourinho made Rooney play as a forward and picked him at the start of the season, leaving out new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan while he adjusted to English football following the Armenian’s £26m move from Borussia Dortmund.
Rooney was pitched against Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Mkhitaryan for a place in the team and struggled to convince anyone he was better than them when he played. If you were being cruel, you would say Mourinho gave Rooney enough rope to hang himself.
He has scored just two Premier League goals this season and just five in 30 appearances in all competitions. It has been enough for him to break Bobby Charlton’s goalscoring record, which he had to do before he would seriously consider quitting the club.
Mourinho knew that, he gave him more than enough opportunities to do so, but even in the immediate aftermath of that fabulous free-kick that took him past Charlton at Stoke, the former Real Madrid and Chelsea manager was taking control of any potential power struggle.
He was full of superlatives, bursting with praise and adulation for the achievement - then he added that he would never tell a player not to go to China, if that is what they wanted to do.
It was up to Rooney if he stayed, not him. If he wanted to see out the remaining 18 months of his contract at Old Trafford, great, but if he wanted to play regularly, well that was a different matter.
Rooney recognised the situation and his pride kicked in. He has Charlton’s record, he will surely have a statue built outside Old Trafford in recognition of his wonderful United career.
He is a club legend, one of the best there has ever been, but his time is up. Mourinho has just managed to make it happen without blood being spilt.
It is a break up without acrimony, without spite or poison and that is a remarkable thing for both of them to have achieved.