‘I’ve had one bad game and everyone’s all over it.’
No, this isn’t me citing the casual quip I usually give after losing a game of FIFA.
Instead it was Wayne Rooney, Manchester United’s captain, their most senior player, the axis of Louis van Gaal’s attacking lineup, who came out with this bashful retort after being brutally derided for his performance against Aston Villa a few weeks ago.
Rooney’s performance against Villa was hardly a earth-shattering isolated incident, nor even anything out of the ordinary; the 29-year-old has been guilty of shockingly subpar displays for many years now. But that’s not the point.
The occasional poor show from United’s captain is commonplace and, on the whole, forgivable, since restoration usually arrives in the form of a plucky purple patch for the striker a few weeks later.
But amongst all these barren spells, some lasting weeks, some even lasting months, Rooney remained a quiet and focused figure, determined to put things right, tacitly confident about a scoring spree coming around soon.
That changed a few weeks ago. Why, in the ever-growing potpourri of mediocrity that serenades the striker’s performances, did Rooney feel compelled to boyishly speak out against the press this time around?
Simple: Rooney knows that his days at the top are over. The striker, despite his best efforts, can no longer respond to his critics in explosive fashion like before. Media criticism is usually palmed away by Rooney through a series of riproaring performances, but now the response is meeker; this feeble reply, which has seemingly replaced the captain’s usual answer to critics, signals the beginning of the end for Rooney.
United’s captain is selected every game – much to the frustration of some – for obscure yet partly understandable reasons: he is a man who boasts an illustrious trophy cabinet, teeming with both individual and team honours; his presence represents the good old days for United – a piece of nostalgia, if you will; he leads the attack with a countenance that reminds the opposition of the threat he, and indeed United as a collective, used to pose in the golden ages. But as far as the present goes, he offers nothing. Rooney is a man who proclaims a wistful, moribund narrative, like a fading actor doing some terrible movie.
Because like many ‘past-it’ actors, Rooney was once brilliant; he was, in many respects, everything United fans could’ve dreamed of. Bursting onto the scene as a teenager, a seething mass of suppressed energy and violence, charging around the pitch with unstoppable fervour, cutting through teams with seismic levels of boisterousness and vigour, manifesting the same delicate execution as Norman Bates and his knife from ‘Psycho’, Rooney represented everything about the club that was cherished by United supporters and reviled by others. A perennially unavoidable beacon of exuberance and pugnacity, he brought, alongside an unparalleled knack for scoring goals, brutal aggression and arrogance to United, thus forming the backbone of a winning team.
But after two attempts to leave the club, complete with a selection of injuries, a fall out with Sir Alex Ferguson, and a gargantuan recession of potency, Rooney has descended from grace and now lies in the pits of embitterment at Old Trafford, despite supporters still, on the whole, persisting with supporting the 29-year-old. Indeed, the striker’s true regression began during the cessation of Sir Alex’s reign, where the great Scot begun to deeply mistrust and ostracise the previously un-droppable No.10.
Rooney was no longer a beacon of aggression and attacking brilliance to the gaffer, but instead an overpaid, troublesome black spot in his side. Needless to say, the striker would’ve been subject to impeachment and subsequent banishment from the side if Sir Alex had chosen to stick around for another year.
But as it was, David Moyes came in. And after throwing another puerile tantrum, Rooney was given the lead role – the Don Vito Corleone role, or, perhaps more accurately, the Forrest Gump role. Either way, he was the centrepiece, and he’s been greedily and unjustifiably occupying that role ever since.
United’s first three league matches of this season were against Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa and Newcastle – three teams Rooney used to single handedly obliterate. But this time around, he showed no indication of threat whatsoever.
You need many things to mount a title challenge: a stoic defence, a multitude of midfield options and a goalkeeper who isn’t called Sergio Romero, amongst some slices of fortune. But the fundamental aspect comes up front.
Any trophy winning side throughout history is emblematised by a ruthless predator leading the line; one that creates chances out of nothing, pulls defences apart with few neat touches, scores goals at times where their side is hardly posing a threat, and generating menace by just being on the pitch.
The man who leads United’s line does none of those things. Placing Rooney in the main striker role, along with the captaincy and unconditional support from the manager has left a genuinely promising group of players with the unenviable task of playing through a man who is well and truly approaching the nadir of his career.
Now take Anthony Martial. The 19-year-old who, just a mere four weeks ago, was more or less completely non-existent within the realms of English football’s scope of interest, but now panders towards cult hero status at Old Trafford after just 135 minutes in a United shirt.
He is largely unproven and yet to reach his full potential; he is irresistibly fast and seemingly intractable when in full flow; he is an inexorable force in front of goal; he is, as shown in emphatic fashion against Liverpool, capable of creating a moment of indescribable brilliance out of absolutely nothing in one silky move; he is a striker who forces bums off seats, entrancing even the dourest of spirits; he is a player who makes things happen.
He is everything Rooney isn’t. United’s captain might not have known who Martial was before he signed, but the Frenchman is now quickening his painful demise into oblivion.
While Rooney represents an older, happier time at United, Martial signifies the future, one which remains uncertain but unavoidably promising. The latter’s debut conjured up a moment of brilliance that single handedly eclipsed anything Rooney has managed in the past two years.
Martial’s addition further belies the notion of United’s attack being ‘too slow’ or ‘imbalanced’. The youngster’s presence empowers the attack. Rooney’s does the reverse. The side is – and will sadly continue to be – handicapped by the curmudgeon that forms its axis. All attacking endeavour streamlines through Rooney and relies on his now severely reduced powers, which, as capably demonstrated already, brings ruin once confronted with decent opposition.
As much as I’d love to see Rooney fire in 30 goals this season, leading United to a romping title success, and thus convincingly proving me wrong, my stance on the depleted captain is pessimistic.
For as long as Rooney leads United’s attacking line, van Gaal’s side will never espouse the style of football United fans yearn to see. And for this reason alone, United’s attack can no longer revolve around Rooney, whose career threatens to enter a terminal decline.