Wayne Rooney's presence is stifling Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba
United's captain is just not the force he once was - and it's presenting a problem for Mourinho
After a week that has seen a sudden and drastic drop-off for Manchester United and Jose Mourinho, it's probably worth remembering one of the manager's careers highs, given that is the level everyone at Old Trafford is eventually hoping to reach by appointing him.
Diego Milito was the key striker in the Portuguese's most successful team at Inter Milan in 2009-10 and, speaking to the Sunday Independent on the eve of the new season, the forward said that the difference with that treble-winning side was how perfectly it all fit together. Mourinho had used the summer of 2009 to forensically change the squad, bringing in quality players for specific roles that they all instantly understood.
"I was very comfortable in that team," Milito explained. "I was very comfortable because I had great players around me who were technically and tactically very intelligent, and the confidence of my coach. To enter into a team with such players and a manager like that, it's always much easier."
It made their integration and development so much easier too. The team didn't even need particularly sophisticated attacking instructions, because the way they were put together meant it was all so obvious, all so natural. They just clicked. By April, they were able to pull off counter-attacks of ruthless pace, as was so gloriously illustrated with the two goals Milito himself scored in the 2-0 Champions League final win over Louis van Gaal's Bayern Munich.
It seemed that Mourinho had a similar plan for United this summer, given how intent he was on signing both Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba. With the way he talked about the French star, in particular, it was hard not to think the United boss had a clear role in mind - that this was the uniquely powerful midfielder to pin the whole XI, and Mourinho's whole approach, together.
Then, they started playing. Although United won their first three games and were intermittently impressive, you couldn't say they clicked. The roles of those two main signings weren't exactly clear either, especially Pogba's. The French star has so often had to roam around to find the space to express himself, and when Ibrahimovic has attempted to drop back in that way that has proven so effective in the past, he has found that area congested.
That is because one player is always there, forcing Pogba away from where the record signing is most effective, occupying the same few yards as Ibrahimovic. One player is just always there in general, no matter what. Wayne Rooney.
None of this would be a problem if the United captain still had the burst of movement to instinctively exchange positions with Pogba and Ibrahimovic in the way he used to with Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in 2007-08, or if he still had the pop in his game to perceptively feed those players. Neither is the case, though. After 14 years as a senior pro, Rooney can't dart in the way he used to, but doesn't play passes that actually do enough damage to opposition defences to compensate either. One of the most conspicuous aspects of his game as a playmaker is actually slow and predictable balls out to the wings. If one of the keys to that position is to produce the moments of rare imagination that win games, Rooney instead seems to mostly offer play that most defenders can all too easily think of, and thereby counter.
It is a long way from the devastatingly swift through-balls Wesley Sneijder was able to execute on the turn with that Inter team, so divinely feeding Milito for both those Champions League goals. It also makes it difficult to see how Rooney fits into any Mourinho ideal. One of the manager's favourite team qualities is searing pace, but his central player at United currently slows everything down. That is the long and short of it. That makes it an obvious problem.
It is an obvious problem, however, that goes so curiously unacknowledged. Sky Sports' Monday Night Football summed it up. Throughout an otherwise enlightening discussion about how Manchester City generally out-classed United, their punditry team were effectively displaying how and why none of Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Rooney can all play together as a three if you are to get the best out of any of them. They just don't fit together. They don't seem to have the complementary qualities that click. Given how intent Mourinho was in specifically bringing in two of those players, it all seemed to be building towards an obvious point, until Phil Neville offered a classic piece of counter-intuition. He stated Rooney "has to be" in the team.
You could easily put this down to Neville standing by an old team-mate, except for the fact that it is an opinion that is very widespread behind the scenes, and around the game. Far from merely being a big name that everyone else in the dressing room is intimidated by, Rooney is genuinely very popular among the United players, who think he sets a good example and does so many little things so well. Moments like his pass for Marcus Rashford against Hull City are then held up as how he can go beyond that more measured role when required.
It was a theme Rio Ferdinand picked up when speaking to the Sunday Independent at a media event a few months ago, with that in itself illustrating how long it has been an issue.
"I don't know if he'll get back to his absolute best, because sometimes you can't defy age, but you could have influence still," he said. "He's still someone who players will look to in the changing room. He's been there, he's done it, he's produced before, he's won titles. Wayne trains well, trains hard.
"If they can continue looking to him, and he can continue producing a moment every now and then, they think 'woah'. That's the catalyst the young players need."
It's just that a lot of this still feels like dressing up a problem in order to downplay it. The big question, really, is how long Mourinho will continue to think Rooney is the catalyst the team needs. Again, some of this seems to go against the Portuguese's supposed defining traits.
For a manager often portrayed as more ruthless than anyone with under-performing players, he has been very quiet on Rooney - other than his continued team selection speaking louder than anything else. It is, of course, possible the England captain is doing exactly the job Mourinho wants him to do.
Some around Old Trafford and United's Carrington training ground do think differently, though. There is a growing belief Mourinho will gradually look to phase Rooney out, possibly even before the end of this season. It's just that, right now, the player still offers enough to prevent a move that could otherwise become a needless political problem early on. Rooney is not just popular among the players, after all, but also at the club's higher levels.
There's also the fact Mourinho didn't immediately drop any of Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole or Iker Casillas in his most famous face-offs. Lampard played 26 league games in his last league season under the Portuguese at Chelsea, Cole 17, and it was two years into Mourinho's time at Real Madrid before Casillas was dropped.
Not that it necessarily means anything right now either, but Rooney's camp had naturally started to plan for the future before the end of last season, and there have been very informal talks with the MLS. David Beckham's anticipated new franchise in Miami has been put forward as the likeliest destination.
The destination today is Vicarage Road, where the pressure on Rooney is all the greater because there is also pressure on United to avoid a third consecutive game without a win. After a week where all the positivity around the new regime was abruptly disrupted, Mourinho could do with his captain producing one of his old moments.
The wonder, though, is how long this dynamic can continue. How long can Rooney continue to produce fine individual pieces of play that justify decent performances, but performances that are still too quiet overall for a star of his stature and wage?
It's worth remembering at this point, how far the issue goes back. Alex Ferguson was willing to sell Rooney in his last season, and signalled his intentions in his last meaningful game by dropping the captain for the Champions League last-16 second leg against Real Madrid. Rooney did come on as a sub in that match but, rather than United hauling back a 3-2 aggregate deficit, it only led to recriminations. After the game, one of United's coaching staff was heard to roar: "Wayne, you gave away the ball four fucking times in 10 minutes!"
It's still an issue. It still happens on many occasions when Rooney tries to do something other than play one of those easy balls out to the wing. It still just doesn't look like it will click.
Watford v Manchester Utd
BT Sport 1, 12.0
Sunday Indo Sport