Wayne Rooney is undoubtedly one of the most divisive United players in recent history. On the one hand he is rapidly closing in on Sir Bobby Charlton’s club record of 249 Manchester United goals and has given over 10 years of service; he also will give everything while on the pitch each week. You would be hard pressed to find an English based pundit (save Paul Parker) who will openly criticise Rooney or admit that his effectiveness is gradually diminishing in a United shirt; both Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand have shown examples of the blinkered response Rooney’s often underwhelming performances often draw from the ‘elite’ football pundits in this country.
However, to anyone who watches football with more than a passing interest he is a player clearly in decline and approaching the end of his career at the highest level. His relationship with some sections of United’s support has also never recovered from his failed attempt to move away in the 2010-2011 season. In one sense it is fair enough. For example, the fans’ perceived Rooney’s transfer request as a lack of loyalty at a time when United still desperately needed their frontman. Only the season before Rooney had accepted the responsibility of replacing the departing Cristiano Ronaldo in fine fashion, scoring more goals in a season than he has done in any other season; who knows whether United would’ve added a third European Cup and another domestic title that season had he stayed fit throughout the end of that season? So, United fans would remain supportive while Rooney was still producing the goods on a weekly basis for United. Now the tables have turned. He has not come close to reproducing his 2009-2010 form in the years since save perhaps the opening few weeks of the 2011-2012 season and therefore he has no leeway with some fans. He has opened himself up to harsher criticism than other players who have felt the effects of a long professional career catching up with them.
The first few weeks of this season almost perfectly capture the reasons behind the growing polarisation of support Rooney receives in the stands at Old Trafford. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who truly thinks his general play in the first three league games has been anywhere near to that of his teammates. Often the ball seems to bounce off his foot and a speed far greater than it arrived, more often still Rooney seems to be caught dallying on the ball in the attacking third while trying to make up his mind what to do next.
Yet despite this he has two impressive assists and a goal to his name for Mourinho’s resurgent United side. For a Number 10, which is Rooney’s best position however much he toys with the idea of moving into midfield, this represents a return which surely warrants a continued run in the side. He still has the power and drive on occasion; his run for Mata’s equaliser in last season’s FA Cup Final and his bursting through Elmohamady’s tired challenge on Saturday evening show this. He cannot demonstrate this over 90 minutes as he once did but on occasions, and important occasions at that, he is able to provide a real drive and aggression with the ball at his feet. Rooney also retains the ability to produce a moment of quality out of nothing as he has done his whole career. This would suggest that there is enough left in Rooney to be of genuine value to a top side.
There is also another factor which has not been entered into the debate over Rooney’s future. Every other United player has seemingly been given a slight breather by the ‘LvG effect’. It is understandable that there may be a period of readjustment where the players rediscover their natural flair and instinctive play after two years of joyless attempts to turn these same players into robots following pre-determined attacking patterns in game. Why then shouldn’t Rooney be given this same benefit of the doubt for the first few weeks of the season? It would certainly explain why he has been caught on the ball so often while deciding his next move in recent weeks.
All that has been written above suggests that the accurate reflection of where Rooney is at right now falls between the two adverse opinions Rooney inspires amongst United fans. He is no longer the world class player whom could cope with being at the heart of a game week in and week out; a player whom offered so much more to some great United sides than goals and assists, though he offered these in abundance too. Nor is there enough evidence to suggest that he is of no use to this United team. There is perhaps evidence enough to suggest that the time where United must cut Rooney loose is approaching but that is precisely why the coming season is huge for Rooney: it will define the image of the back end of his career. If the early pattern of this season can be maintained as he keeps scoring and assisting goals regularly then his general sloppiness will be overlooked and questions of his suitability at the top level will be dismissed. He will demonstrate that he can still contribute to a top side at the back end of his career as so many great players have done before him. If the goals and assists dry up though, then the doubters will be proved right and this season will be fitted into a larger narrative of Rooney’s ongoing decline in terms of goals, assists, and his general play which has been evident since his last great season in 2011-2012.
For those United fans that were not driven into an emotionless shell of a human being by the Moyes/LvG years then the Rooney sideshow is just one issue which will contribute to what looks to be a promising and, most importantly, exciting season ahead. If only we could forego those pesky (for want of a more extreme word) international breaks…