Just over 12 years have passed since Wayne Rooney joined Manchester United from boyhood club Everton in a deal worth almost £30million. At the time, it was the highest fee ever paid for a player under the age of 20. Still 18, Rooney had just burst onto the world scene with an exceptional display at Euro 2004, only to be cruelly injured in the quarterfinals against Portugal as England crashed out on penalties against the hosts.
Ever since, Rooney’s ability and starting position for club and country have never been in doubt. He has played with some world class forwards at United – including Ruud van Nistelrooy, Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov, Robin Van Persie and of course Cristiano Ronaldo – and he has been an integral part of every team over the past 12 seasons.
He is now club captain and also the England skipper and all-time leading goal-scorer, with his tally of 53 goals meaning he is four ahead of former player Gary Lineker. He has played over 500 games for United and is closing in on Bobby Charlton’s goals tally. Charlton scored 249 for the club between 1956 and 1973, and 43 years later Rooney is just three behind on 246 having played 230 fewer games.
He has had a phenomenal career, but now, at the age of only 31, his position in the game is in question. The arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic has intensified the competition for a place in the United starting line-up, whilst Rooney’s own under-par performances have increased the scrutiny on him as a player.
He has consistently produced in front of goal in the past few seasons, although the past two campaigns under Louis Van Gaal have seen his lowest return since joining the club, with 14 goals in 2014/15 and 15 in 2015/16.
He has been moved around within the different formations used by Van Gaal and his predecessor David Moyes. His preferred position is as a striker, but he lacks the natural predatory instincts that top strikers need. He has been played in midfield and has the technical ability to perform in that role but perhaps not the positional discipline needed.
Rooney is definitely causing a problem for Mourinho this season. He has just one goal in eight games – a tap in against Bournemouth – and the way that Ibrahimovic has settled in hasn’t helped him. Youngster Marcus Rashford has also been on fire and has seven goals in his last seven games for club and country. With the impressive performances of his fellow attackers, along with Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and world-record signing Paul Pogba, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Mourinho to justify picking his captain.
The Portuguese finally bowed to pressure for United’s game at home to reigning Premier League champions Leicester City. Rooney started on the bench, and despite the warm reception he received from the fans whilst he warmed up and when he came on as a substitute late in the game, United’s performance has further underlined the fact that Rooney is no longer as effective and influential as he once was.
United raced into a 4-0 lead by half time, and despite taking their foot off the gas in the second period, they still won 4-1 and looked comfortable without their captain. Not one player played badly and Rooney couldn’t have any complaints if he was to be left on the bench again for United’s next league game – at home to Stoke City.
He may, however, be given the nod for United’s game at home to Zorya in the Europa League on Thursday. There is no doubting that he has what it takes to be a crucial part of United’s plans. They have a title challenge to mount, a European campaign to manage and two cup competitions to negotiate.
The question is, will Rooney be forced to accept a restricted role, and will he accept it willingly? Will he look to leave the club for guaranteed first team football or will this new challenge revitalise him? He is arguably the most comfortable he has ever been, playing in an underperforming United side and therefore not having to be at the top of his game to keep his spot. But Mourinho will not be afraid to leave him out if it is the best thing for the club, and if he wants to stay in the side, Rooney will need to find a way to be the effective player he once was again.
It can be argued that Rooney peaked too early in his career, scoring 34 goals in both the 2009/10 season, at the age of 25, and again two years later. It may be time for him to adapt his game as he is – probably for the first time in his career – no longer irreplaceable.