“You can tell me his pass is amazing but my pass is amazing too without pressure.”
Mourinho has made his thoughts on Rooney being deployed in deeper midfield roles pretty clear and has backed that up this pre-season by deploying him in the 10 role of his preferred 4-2-3-1.
I think it’s fair to say, Rooney lacked the certain nuance that is required to play as the central-midfield playmaker that he had been used as by both Roy Hodgson and Louis van Gaal. Rooney’s tendency to hit looping diagonal balls out to the full-backs at every given opportunity exacerbated the issues in two systems that both suffered from moving the ball too slowly and a lack of central penetration.
He’s also fairly unlikely to feature as a 9 due to the arrival of new signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The mega-brand that is Zlatan comes from Paris Saint-Germain, and it’s easy to draw comparisons between the PSG frontline of last year and players in this season’s Man United squad. Cavani and Martial on the left, players traditionally recognised as centre-forwards, moved out-wide for their close control and work rate, who are expected to dribble inside onto their strong right feet. On the right Di Maria and Mkhitaryan are creative speedsters who can play in a multitude of positions and live for assists.
However, PSG utilised a 4-3-3. Ibrahimovic benefited from the proximity towards, and the attacking freedom afforded to, Cavani and Di Maria, which isn’t quite there in Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1. To take the PSG comparison even further, Zlatan also had a lot of luck dropping deep and combining with the on-rushing Matuidi. The enormous Swede could be seen making similar movements against Leicester during United’s longer spells of possession in the Community Shield, but the rest of the equation was missing. Perhaps Ibrahimovic was breaking instructions by coming deep or perhaps Rooney will be coached to make those Matuidi-style runs, but I suspect they just aren’t part of his game anymore.
Instead, record-breaking (if you take into account the agent’s cut) transfer Paul Pogba is much more suited to the task. The returning Frenchman is one of the most well rounded football players on the planet. He can play in a range of roles, positions and systems but he probably remains best as the most attacking centre-mid on the left of a midfield three. His time with France at the Euros saw him play as the deepest midfielder in a 4-2-3-1, which helped a lot against the defensive Iceland but was otherwise a limitation of his talents.
A 4-3-3 would also benefit attack-minded full-back Luke Shaw and converted winger Antonio Valencia. Michael Carrick threatens a much deserved resurgence under Mourinho and his ability to slot in-between the centre-backs to a create a situational back three would allow the full-backs to get into areas where they can send in crosses to the club’s new famous target man. Blind and Smalling would also suit this temporary back three shape due to their experience as full-backs – although Eric Bailly’s outstanding pre-season may mean Blind has lost his spot at the back. If Blind is instead seen as a midfield player, or perhaps a back-up to both, he will join a bloated list of central and defensive midfielders which once again would be aided by Mourinho changing to a 4-3-3 shape.
Essentially then, the 4-3-3 suits everyone. Everyone except club captain Wayne Rooney. The question becomes: how well and for how long can Rooney play, to hold on to a first team spot, and prevent Mourinho from experimenting with a shape change?