A little over an hour into Manchester United’s season opener against Bournemouth last weekend, new signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic opened his United account, placing a wormburner into the side netting from 25-some-odd yards out and putting his side up 3–0. As Ander Herrera leaped into Zlatan’s arms in celebration and manager José Mourinho sprinted out of the technical area to do that I’m a genius, fuck what y’all talkin’ ’bout celebration he often does, it felt, really and truly, like the dawning of a new era for the club.
And Paul Pogba, who’s dominated most conversations surrounding the Red Devils for the better part of the summer and recently completed his highly anticipated and obscenely expensive transfer back to the club, wasn’t even there.
For the first time in recent years, United has a roster with both depth and intrigue. Assuming Mourinho will stick with the same back four for Friday’s fixture against Southampton, there are six available spots in the midfield and attack, and a glut of sumptuous options to fill them with. Various combinations of Pogba, Morgan Schneiderlin, Ander Herrera, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Memphis Depay, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, and Anthony Martial can be deployed as a midfield four; Ibrahimovic could tip the spear, and Martial, Mata, Pogba, or Marcus Rashford could play in the hole beneath. It’s mouthwatering.
But even so, with all of these options, somehow, some way, Wayne Rooney is going to find his way onto the team sheet. It happened last year because, though he was pretty much physically toast and his first touch was comically bad, he was still the club captain, and the most recognizable name. In 12 years at Old Trafford, he’s drummed up a lot of goodwill, sold a lot of jerseys, and become an ambassador for the global Manchester United brand. He’s also four goals shy of the club’s all-time scoring record, which at least partly explains why he has featured so prominently under United’s last two managers.
OK, here are two opinions that a person capable of logically structured thought can hold, concurrently, without friction:
- Wayne Rooney is a United hero, and has given more to the club and its supporters than we’ll ever be able to return in kind.
- Wayne Rooney is fucking washed.
Yes, sure, fine: Rooney knicked himself a goal in what was ultimately a 3–1 win over Bournemouth. Martial snatched a full volley off target while opposing defenders mostly watched to see where it’d land instead of trying to clear out the danger, and Rooney put his side ahead 2–0 with an opportunistic finish. While pedestrian, it wasn’t one of those things that just anybody could do, you know? It required positioning, a certain level of body control, and obviously execution; plenty others might’ve failed to clear those hurdles.
Still, watching it happen elicited that same dull ache in the pit of my stomach that I got watching him break his 452-minute scoring drought against CSKA Moscow, or, really, any time he scored last season. It’s the same deal as Drew Brees breaking passing records as the Saints finish the season with seven wins and miss the wild-card spot; when Rooney scores, time reverses and it briefly becomes less apparent that he’s nowhere near as good as he used to be, and the team is stuck with him in the starting lineup for at least another week.
In the Louis Van Gaal edition of United, Rooney might’ve been the team’s only household name and “world class” talent. And I use scare quotes because Rooney, who was overused and cruelly old at 30, no longer possessed a world-class game. But there are considerably better options elsewhere now, and we might have to come to terms with the fact that Rooney has no business starting for United. Pogba, a world-class talent in his own right, is expected to get “some minutes” against Southampton, but after a presumably brief period of adjustment to his new manager’s system and recalibration to the English game, those minutes will likely turn into a regular starting role. There seems to be less and less room for Rooney, but it seems Mourinho won’t ax the longtime United captain from the lineup for the second game of the season; that’s too strong a gesture, even for someone like Mourinho.
Even if it doesn’t happen this week, Rooney’s days as a capital-I Important First-Team Player will soon be over. At least they should be. United have far too much promising talent to stay mired in the past.