Not for the first time, I find myself having mixed feelings about Wayne Rooney. His well-taken goal early in Saturday’s game wiped away any potential nerves lingering from the Leicester debacle and, as usual, he couldn’t be criticised for effort and application. Having seen his sending off against West Ham a few times more, I admit I was maybe a little generous to him in my match report on Saturday, though it still rankles that a grossly over-physical Hammers got away with so much that was either only mildly punished or not punished at all.
Leaving that aside, however, there are too many areas in which he’s found wanting at the moment and too many ways in which his identity jars with that of the club. As I wrote in my article last week, he’s no more a captain of Manchester United than I am and I still find myself disappointed at the prospect of him overhauling Bobby Charton’s goals record. His two transfer requests rightly left him unpopular with the United faithful and it feels like a little bit of the romance of our club will die when the mercenary finally overtakes the master.
Meanwhile, for now I find myself unconcerned about the prospect of Rooney missing the next three games. In fact, I find myself welcoming it. It hands an opportunity to Juan Mata, after all, to prove that he can be a more effective option than the United skipper in the hole behind the two main strikers. While I understand Van Gaal’s thinking in preferring Rooney in that role, the thought of Falcao especially really coming alive when fed balls by the Spaniard, as well as the space Mata can get when Di Maria drags opposing players out of position, makes the prospect of him seizing Rooney’s place in the side and making it his own one I’m keen to see happen. It may, in fact, be a crucial opportunity in determining whether this thoroughbred of a player is part of the future at our club, and I know I’m not alone among United fans in hoping he takes the opportunity with both hands.
It also moves Adnan Januzaj up the pecking order. Januzaj was arguably the player at United who benefited most from the Moyes reign: obstacles that may have existed in getting him to sign a contract were removed largely due to our former boss’s willingness to give him game time and he was very often our best player in that ignominious year of 2013-14. We don’t want to see him burnt out, which is why I welcome the fact we’re no longer relying on him as much, but with so many quality attacking players there’s a real danger of him not getting the game time he needs to continue his development.
It also means someone else picking up the captaincy, and I hope whoever it is gives Van Gaal something to think about much in the way Bryan Robson seized the initiative and the captaincy from Ray Wilkins under Ron Atkinson. I’m sure Rooney wants to do well in the role, but I fear he can’t handle the extra responsibility and that this may explain his irrational challenge on Saturday.
I may be wrong, of course. We might find out that the team needs Rooney more than I realise, in which case that’s probably something we need to know anyway. I suspect, however, that after the three games there’ll be an even bigger question mark over his position as a regular starter and that Van Gaal may be forced to reassess his view of his leadership qualities. If at the end of the suspension period a true leader emerges and Mata and Januzaj give United’s boss a selection headache to ponder, Rooney might find his place in the side more vulnerable than at any time since Fergie left and that, I suggest, is an outcome to be welcomed.