I try to produce something in this weekly round up of all that has happened at United that is as original as possible. There are, as I’m sure you are well aware, hundreds of football blogs on the Internet. Manchester United, being the most popular football team on this here insignificant rock in the vastness of space, has more internet hosted bilge written about it than any other. I’d hate my bilge to be of the run-of-the-mill variety. My bilge probably is exactly that, but I try to be different at least, even if I regularly fail. No-one wants to read another article about Wayne Rooney, right? I don’t particularly.
Sometimes, when a lot has happened, finding a topic about which to be fresh and new can be reasonably easy. When the opposite is true then the job becomes a hard one. To complicate matters further, there are times when the topic that everyone else is debating ad nauseum is of such significance that to ignore it, even in the interests of originality, would be totally remiss of me. This week I have been hit by a double-whammy.
You see, in the tepid, lifeless 0-0 draw at home to Manchester City on Sunday, a result which took the other ‘arf of Manchester back to the top of the Premier League and left our boys in fourth, two points off the leaders, very little happened. Almost entirely nothing, in fact, save for substitute Jesse Lingard hitting the bar late on. This was a game in which both sides cancelled each other out and the exceptional performers on both teams were the defenders, most notably Marcos Rojo for United and Nicholas Otamendi for City. No attacking players stood out, with the usual exception of Anthony Martial, exiled left again, from whence he had scored an exceptional equaliser for his team in the 1-1 draw against CSKA in Moscow in midweek. That was another game in which not much happened either, but as on Sunday the result means that Van Gaal’s men live to fight another day. Both results were neither disastrous or worthy of celebration. They are gone, no doubt long to be forgotten.
There were other parallels between the two games. Given the tactics of the opposition and the fact that both tired long before the 90 minutes were up, both contests were there for the taking, with a little drive and cutting edge. Schweinsteiger did his best to provide the former, but the latter was sorely lacking. Which brings me to the point of my ramble about being original, because sometimes the most common material is the most common because a) nothing else of interest has occurred, or b) because everything else that happens on the pitch is being influenced by the subject of that debate. This week, and almost every week, that topic is Wayne Rooney, or WAYNE ROONEY as Mark Saggers of Talksport so regularly calls him. I say ‘regularly’, because WAYNE ROONEY is the main topic of every show he has hosted in over a decade. In fact, in football, Rooney must be the least original subject matter of his generation.
But sitting, enveloped by a rational acceptance that a 0-0 draw with City wasn’t the end of the world, but overwhelmed by frustration that a significant opportunity had been lost, there was little else to discuss than Rooney, and thus I will reluctantly have to follow suit. This is the opportune moment for you, the reader to (in the parlance of the great Tom Cruise in Top Gun) ‘bug out’.
Van Gaal’s system of play asks a great deal of its centre forward. They must be mobile, intelligent, flexible and, for all to work as well as could be hoped, assertive and deadly in front of goal. They need to be able to link the build-up play and terrorise the opposition’s defence when not on the ball. All of the things that Anthony Martial did in his brief but successful stint in the classic number 9 role. All of the things which Rooney can do no more. The England and United captain’s stats this season have been dire, save for a hat-trick against an appalling Club Brugge side. The magic is gone. Van Gaal can’t see it, or perhaps won’t, and thus there is no accountability for his only senior striker. Maybe his coach values his qualities as a captain and leader so much that reduced effectiveness on the pitch is outweighed by his position as a role model and inspiration off it. That seems hard to believe. As much as the younger players in the group may look up to him, in awe of his past achievements, they can see as well as anyone that his talents no longer match his reputation.
And thus we are left in limbo. United cannot move on and progress further until Van Gaal moves on from Rooney, something which his public pronouncements at least suggest he is suggest he is not ready to do. But the Dutchman’s successes as a coach have come from an attention to detail few are able to replicate, and he will be well aware of Rooney’s 55% pass completion rate on Sunday and his lack of shots, assists and key passes. When the ball was sent in his direction there was close to a 50/50 chance that it would soon be at the feet of a man in blue.
The problem with criticising Rooney this day or any day, aside from the fact that it is bone-crunchingly dull, is that it stirs up the even more tedious matter of United fan politics. For some Rooney has always been sh*te, for others any greatness was lost when he twice asked to leave the club. For others he can do no wrong. For many the job of a ‘fan’ or ‘supporter’ is to support, regardless of performances. Criticism is the greatest faux pas imaginable. Most of us look for a scapegoat when a good thing turns bad. The key to this argument is to set aside all of these positions and look at the evidence in front of you. Watching the games gives an accurate impression that Rooney is struggling, a position backed up by his statistics for individual contests and the season as a whole. At 30 years of age and having been fading for some time it is hard to argue against the notion that this is a terminal decline.
We are now observing the dying embers of a once roaring fire and must recognise that that fact is neither personal nor political. It is merely the only conclusion we can draw from the evidence our senses provide for us. Rooney will, in time, be recognised as one of the greatest footballers ever to play for Manchester United, but between now and when he is finally immortalised there can only be frustration. Tiny glimpses of the bright, vibrant Evertonian will finally give way to the dying of the light. How will it end? Right now it appears likely to be a prolonged death, not just of the player but perhaps also of Van Gaal’s legacy at United. They appear to be inextricably linked. For if the manager wakes up, smells the coffee and restores the prodigiously gifted Martial to his most effective centre-forward role, this team could kick on and enter the final stages of one of the most unlikely and open Premier League title races for years. If not, and if Rooney is retained, the damage to a system which demands so much of it’s centre forward may be critical.
None of this is original or particularly interesting. I’m bored of the discussion myself. But will refusing to continue to discuss the biggest single problem Van Gaal’s team faces get us anywhere? Rooney was once great, he now isn’t. It is perfectly acceptable to observe this. With Martial spearheading the lineup United could have beaten City on Sunday. They could have beaten them with Rooney up front, but it would have been in spite of and not because of him. As it is we continue to watch on as an increasingly coherent unit is blunted by a cat with nine lives. He needs to be dropped, immediately, but there are about 300,000 reasons per week why that probably won’t happen. United have the manager with the biggest gonads in world football, but in the presence of Wayne Rooney they shrivel up like prunes. The topic isn’t original and neither is that analogy, but just this once both need to be said.