Wayne Rooney faces arguably the most critical season of his career as he bids to avoid becoming a high-profile victim of Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United revolution.
One of the most significant quotes to come from Mourinho’s first press conference as Manchester United boss last week came when the Portuguese said “In football there are many jobs on the field. The one that is more difficult to find is the one who puts the ball in the net.
“Maybe he is not a striker, not a number nine anymore, but for me he will never be a number six, playing 50 metres from the goal.”
He was of course talking about Wayne Rooney. And the message was clear. If Rooney is to have a future at Manchester United it will be in a forward role, not the midfield role he was given under previous boss Louis Van Gaal and the deeper role he fulfilled in England’s doomed European Championships campaign in France under Roy Hodgson.
Rooney is after all England’s record all-time goalscorer and will this season, barring a miracle or serious injury, eclipse Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time United record of 249 goals (he currently sits on 245).
There was a defiance to Mourinho’s words and it is clear that he wants the England skipper to play in an attacking position for his club. This despite the fact that the 30-year-old version of Rooney may now be better suited to a deeper lying role.
With his football intelligence and range of passing the move looked natural, especially given that the years have robbed him of half a yard of pace from the version who was signed by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2004 and who scored an outrageous hat-trick on Champions League debut against Fenerbahce.
Rooney the midfielder no more
Rooney was mesmerising in midfield for United on various occasions last season, despite playing in a side who for long spells were bereft of confidence.
Away to former club Everton in April he was the fulcrum of the side playing in a ‘quarterback’ position behind the forwards, and then put in a man-of-the-match shift from the same position for the Red Devils as they closed their campaign with a 3-1 win over Bournemouth.
Mourinho’s long been an admirer of the one-time Scouse prodigy, and as recently as 2013 tried to sign him to galvanise Chelsea’s attack. He also made a bid for him in 2010 while boss of Real Madrid.
Yet while it is clear Don Jose rates Rooney, the player himself would do well not to rest on his laurels. It was the old boxing promoter Mickey Duff who was famed for saying “If you want loyalty, get a dog”. And Mourinho has a similar mindset.
In 2010 Samuel Eto’o helped fire Mourinho’s Inter Milan to Champions League glory. Just a few short years later however Mourinho was so frustrated with the Cameroon forward’s lack of goals after signing him for Chelsea he famously hissed “The problem is I lack a scorer. I have Eto’o but he’s 32 years old, maybe 35, who knows?”
‘Cold, calculating Mourinho’
Mourinho has achieved the success he has in management by being cold, calculating and ruthless. He won’t shirk the big decisions and if Rooney is not cutting it up top, you can bet your life he will not think twice about axing him, club captain or no club captain.
He has a contract with the club to 2019 worth mega-money, but that will not matter to Mourinho if he is not cutting the mustard. And if his first press conference is to be believed there won’t be an option for Wayne to ‘do a Paul Scholes’ and migrate back into midfield.
The casual dismissal of any suggestion Rooney could play in midfield was Mourinho cleverly slighting the previous observations of both Hodgson and Van Gaal, while also chiming in with a timely reminder that he is the boss man now at the Theatre of Dreams.
While Rooney admits Mourinho’s arrival will inspire him to new heights, clearly the pressure is on at Old Trafford with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Anthony Martial and young sharp-shooter Marcus Rashford all bidding to start up front in this new era for Manchester United.
Ibrahimovic surely hasn’t come over here to warm the bench so it will be intriguing to see how United line up at Bournemouth on August 13. Only time will tell whether Rooney will help lead the new Red Devils revolution, or become one of its most significant casualties.