With his Man United future in jeopardy, Wayne Rooney has come to a crossroads
The emerging Marcus Rashford and other options available to Jose Mourinho could spell the end for Rooney, even if he doesn't want to
For Jose Mourinho, the Wayne Rooney issue is simply a numbers game this season. As in, numbers 9 and 10 but never 6 or 8.
For Rooney himself, or more specifically his agent Paul Stretford, numbers are also paramount. As in the number of years left on his Old Trafford contract - currently three but a figure player and agent have declared they are keen to see extended in the very near future.
Thus, as Rooney and his Manchester United team mates prepare to start a season under their fourth different manager in the last five years, it is no exaggeration to say that Rooney’s club career is at a crossroads.
Where does he fit into Mourinho’s plans, which clearly have Zlatan Ibrahimovic earmarked as a target forward and the dazzlingly precocious and adaptable Marcus Rashford waiting in the wings?
Perhaps, here is a situation which has Mourinho thinking back to those years at Stamford Bridge where John Terry and Frank Lampard were seeing their skills decline marginally but, by their sheer force of personality and importance, presented their manager with a headache as to how and when he could reasonably put them out to pasture.
If that is the case, Mourinho has already played a master stroke in his relationship with Rooney, specifically on his very first day as United manager when this newspaper’s chief football correspondent asked him what he believed the England captain’s best position to be.
“The one that is more difficult to find is the guy who puts the ball in the net,” said Mourinho. “Obviously the players change during the years; their qualities, their characteristics.
“It is normal a player at their age change a bit but there is something that will never change which is the natural appetite to put the ball in the net, so maybe he is not a striker any more, not a No. 9 anymore but with me he will never be a No. 6, never playing 50 metres away from the goal.
“You can tell me his pass is amazing, yes his pass is amazing, but my pass is also amazing without pressure. There are many players with a great pass but to be there and put the ball in the net is the most difficult thing to find, so for me he will be a 9, a 10, a nine and a half but not a 6, not even an 8.”
In short, if, as early indications suggest, a 4-2-3-1 formation is to be Mourinho’s default setting at Old Trafford, Rooney has precisely two potential positions - or, in Mourinho’s own words, two-and-a-half - for which he can expect to compete. He can play as a lone number nine target man or the player directly behind him in the middle of a three-man midfield line.
Not for Mourinho, therefore, the headache of how to shoe-horn Rooney into his starting XI in a "quarterback" midfield role that has seen the man who will soon become United's all-time leading goalscorer spending large chunks of games far closer to his own goalkeeper than the opponent’s in recent years.
And if Rooney should fail to deliver in that role? Well, local product Rashford is already far more popular with the United faithful than Rooney ever has been and his superior pace hands Mourinho the option of pushing his formation into a 4-4-2, as he did in the second half of Wednesday's testimonial against Everton - with the youngster alongside Ibrahimovic. Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are just two more candidates for that 10 role.
Not that there is any suggestion at this point that the 30-year-old captain's days may be numbered. As Mourinho himself said this week: "Everybody knows, I tried to buy him. He is a player I always wanted to have in my side. Finally, I have him and I have him in the club he loves, the club where he has spent the best years of his career. And, I think, the best is yet to come from him."
That will be music to the ears of Stretford who announced on the day of Rooney's testimonial - the proceeds of which all went to charity - that his client would love to stay at Old Trafford beyond 2019 and is ready to sit down and discuss that prospect immediately.
The coming weeks will show whether the feeling is mutual.
Independent News Service