Wayne Rooney again looked subdued and off the pace for Manchester United. For how long does the captaincy keep him the team?
“My captain shall always play,” said Louis van Gaal last season while insisting that no one else, with the exception of David de Gea, is guaranteed a starting place in his Manchester United side. “Only the captain has more privileges.”
Wayne Rooney may feel fortunate to enjoy such immunity from the axe, but if his current vein of form continues, Van Gaal may have to look revoking his captain’s privileges.
Against Wolfsburg on Wednesday night, the United skipper once more appeared as though he was playing up a hill. His night was neatly summed up when he skied over an open goal in the first half after Anthony Martial delivered the ball on a plate. But his troubles go beyond simply not taking goalscoring opportunities when they arrive.
Rooney is undoubtedly in a funk – the type of which he has suffered plenty of times before in his career. As player who thrives on belief and one who needs his sharpness and an edge to perform, often the only solution is to play on until he catches a break. But, just over three weeks from his 30th birthday, emerging from these slumps is only likely to become harder for the United No.10.
In his ruts, Rooney’s passing is sloppy, his finishing is poor and his touch is sometimes comically bad. But as his twenties slip behind him, so have some of the raw special talents that he could always rely on. No longer does he possess an injection of pace to escape from opponents, and his stocky frame appears more of a hinderance than the help it used to be.
Seemingly without feeling the need to offer any great insight as a former striker and team-mate of Rooney, Michael Owen still managed to sum up the United skipper quite succinctly: “He is a confidence player. Once he’s on, he’s on and once he’s off, he can go missing a little bit.”
But for how long can United carry Rooney? How far do his privileges as captain stretch?
Rooney’s versatility has certainly helped curry favour with Van Gaal. “I think that Wayne can play a lot of positions,” the manager said. “He has shown that last season.”
The attacker has certainly been shifted around by Van Gaal, who has employed his captain as a centre-forward, a playmaker and deep-lying midfielder. Rooney can indeed carry out numerous jobs, but has he failed to excel in any of them of late.
As a lead striker, Rooney no longer turns opponents and is too easily shackled. He is not an adequate pivot when his touch is as wayward as it currently is. As a No.10, he doesn’t possess the same burst of speed to carry the ball into dangerous areas, nor the subtlety to unpick massed defences with a pass.
As Owen and Paul Scholes said, Rooney is a player who thrives on belief, but it is difficult to see where that might come from. Strikers in a slump often just need a goal, however scabbily it arrives. The moment that broke Rooney’s 1000-minute Premier League drought certainly fits that description – a kneed finish from a yard against Sunderland – but his performance against Wolfsburg suggests Rooney did not see that as the moment his fortunes turned. Nor was it the hat-trick he scored against a poor Club Brugge side, or breaking the England goalscoring record.
Rooney was always safe in the United attack because Van Gaal had so few other options that he trusted. Martial’s arrival a month ago changed that.
Ander Herrera praised the teenager after his flying start to life at Old Trafford while unintentionally – probably – giving an insight into United’s struggles with Rooney as their lead striker.
“I think he [Martial] is a player who has some qualities that the rest haven’t got. So I think he can run into the spaces when the midfielders look forward. We are always going to find him because he’s very quick, very mobile, so I think he is a very good player for us and is going to give us different options.”
Having been shifted deeper by Martial’s arrival, Rooney is now under intense pressure in his current role as a No.10. Van Gaal has experimented with Herrera and Juan Mata in that position, and while neither succeeded in convincing the manager, both better fit the prototype of the attacking playmaker. The boss has also spoken of using Memphis Depay in the pocket off the striker, but the Dutch new boy has his own issues with form to contend with.
Rooney has emerged from such periods of malaise before and, however long it takes, he will almost certainly score the 15 goals he needs to become Manchester United’s all-time leading goalscorer. But just as his record has shown us that he surely will rediscover his form, we can also reasonably assume it will go again.
Ahead lies a tricky October, during which United go to Arsenal, Everton, CSKA Moscow and Crystal Palace, while also hosting Manchester City. Such a testing period two months into the season is not the time for Rooney to be trying to play his way into form. Twelve games into his season, we should now be seeing him fit and flying. That he is so clearly not has to worry Van Gaal. The armband can only save Rooney from scrutiny, and eventually the bench, for so long.