Despite what you may have heard, Wayne Rooney does not in fact suck. He remains a really good Premier League player who is very smart and boasts a unique skill set that can be quite valuable to the right team. However, he was really bad in Manchester United’s 3-1 loss to Watford, and it’s becoming increasingly evident that this current United squad isn’t the right team for him.
Behold Rooney’s lowlight reel from the match, in which a curiously deep-lying (curious because new Man U manager José Mourinho specifically noted before the season that he wouldn’t play Rooney in the kind of deep midfield role he’s featured in for club and country of late) Rooney misplaces simple passes, tries overly complicated ones that fail to find their intended target, sails a number of crosses harmlessly into the sky, and generally trots around and kicks the ball nowhere particularly threatening in a way that makes you question whether he really wanted to be out there at all:
Selective clips like this from a 90 minute match can be misleading, but in Rooney’s case, this is a pretty accurate summation of how poorly he played against Watford. More to the point, this kind of display is indicative of United’s larger Rooney problem.
Rooney is a functional central midfielder because, for a natural forward, he is a pretty good passer who has a knack for orchestrating attacks with his playmaking skills. This kind of versatility, and his ability to score goals from wherever he’s put on the field, has made him a crucial component of United’s game for most of his career there. He can plug almost any weakness in the team.
Need someone to score? Put Rooney up top, either alone or with a strike partner, and pencil him in for at least 15 goals. Need a creative force? Let Rooney play a little deeper, give him the ball whenever you make it into the final third, and watch him tee up his teammates with regularity. Lacking control in midfield? Slide Rooney back even deeper and let him ping the ball all across the pitch, getting each of his teammates touches on the ball and into the flow of the game.
Especially later in his career as his athleticism has waned, Rooney has been United’s ultimate Swiss Army Knife. The deeper he drops, the more his defense and positional laxity can harm the team, but at times when the manager doesn’t trust anyone else in those positions, Rooney has been a more than capable stand-in.
The problem with Rooney’s place in this iteration of the Red Devils is that for every position Rooney could fill, the club has someone who can do that job better. Rooney’s already been all but run out of the forward position by Zlatan Ibrahimović, with Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial also ahead of him in the striking depth chart. He has featured—and, again, played pretty well—in the No. 10 spot for most of the season, but the team has another great option for that role in Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Mkhitaryan apparently hasn’t earned enough trust from Mourinho yet to regularly make the starting lineup, but he was arguably the best player in the Bundesliga last season as Borussia Dortmund’s playmaker-in-chief, often playing on the wing but still given license to dominate the ball in the attack. In midfield, United have both Ander Herrera and some guy they just bought named Paul Pogba who are better equipped to control the tempo of games from the center of the pitch and make something special happen in attack—and neither of them are as big of a defensive liability as Rooney.
Shoehorning Rooney onto the pitch, either as the No. 10 or in midfield, itself stifles the expression of these superior players’s talents. Rooney-as-attacking midfielder clogs the most dangerous positions on the field, preventing Pogba and Mkhitaryan from floating in and out of those areas where they do the most damage. Rooney-as-central midfielder gives a bunch of touches to a player who isn’t as good at any of the aspects of midfield play as a number of other United players who are naturals in the position. By being on the pitch, Rooney is taking a starting spot away from a player on the bench who could probably do a better (or at least a more complementary) job, as well as inhibiting those players who are out there on the field with him from doing what they do best.
Rooney is by no means bad now. He has started every EPL game for the team that has, along with their city rivals Manchester City, looked like one of the two big favorites to win the league. Before the Watford match, he had played very well for the most part and had a direct hand in three goals in United’s first four matches. United have been and will likely continue to be a very good team with Rooney in the starting lineup.
However, if this team is serious about becoming what it once was, the best team in England and one of Europe’s elite, it has to be better, it has to get Pogba and Mkhitaryan and Martial playing nearer to their immense potentials. This stumble against Watford, and their last league loss against a far superior City team, make a good case that they won’t be able to do so with Rooney playing such a prominent role.