When Louis van Gaal made Marcos Rojo his third Manchester United signing after arriving at Old Trafford last summer, no one quite knew what to think. On the one hand, £16 million was a fairly small price to pay for a defender yet to reach his peak; on the other, it was a deal that carried the faint and alarming whiff of a post-World Cup gift grabbed from the duty free of a Brazilian airport. A year on, you'd have thought we'd be some way closer to making a full and proper evaluation. But here's the weird thing: we're still not sure either way.
Rojo's first season in English football was a solid if unspectacular one, which, for a 24-year-old subject to the pressures of the Premier League and the United spotlight for the first time, was not necessarily a bad thing. We'd been warned in advance about Rojo's positional indiscipline, though his occasional blunders were offset by a surprising level of defensive competence: merely being able to run, pass and tackle made him a more useful asset than Phil Jones, and though it seems unthinkable now, he was hardly outshone by Chris Smalling either. His fiery spirit helped us overlook any early mistakes, and was a more than welcome addition with Rafael's demise looming.
But while van Gaal's stubbornness is occasionally a strength, his treatment of Rojo is one of the many instances it has manifested itself as a weakness. Arguably the central tenet of his footballing philosophy is minimising risk, whether that's in playing a predictably slow passing game or demanding particularly conservative defending from his centre-backs. Suffice to say, Rojo is not one for the risk-averse; and by the summer just gone, his tendency of breaking ranks to win the ball back high up the pitch led to whispers of a swift exit.
Perhaps van Gaal had given up on trying to tame Rojo's excitable defending; perhaps he'd never even bothered. But either way, it was clear something was amiss, with tensions apparently exacerbated by an embarrassing administrative cock-up: Rojo failed to renew his passport ahead of United's pre-season tour of the United States, and so couldn't join them after he'd finished playing his part in Argentina's Copa América campaign. Van Gaal didn't seem to like him on the pitch, and now he didn't seem to like him off it. Benched to make way for teacher's pet Daley Blind -- a man who isn't and will never be a centre-back -- it seemed curtains.
That was until the figure of PSV's Héctor Moreno emerged from the shadows to snap Luke Shaw's leg and spark an unlikely revival of Rojo's United career -- only as a left-back. He looks a comparatively ungainly figure when shoved out on the flank, with his awkward one-footedness restricting him to simple runs back and forth along the touchline. But appearances can be deceptive, and he's started to prove why he's made the position his own under successive Argentina coaches. There have been two obvious highlights: the first his stunning cross for Ander Herrera's goal in the win over Everton, the second his utter domination of Kevin De Bruyne in the Manchester derby.
It hasn't all been plain sailing, and there have been times when he's struggled to deal with the pace and skill of opposition wingers. On the ball, he lacks the technical intricacy of Shaw, and he still does resemble a centre-back playing out of position. But he has been broadly impressive, and looks set to hold onto his place in the starting lineup for the foreseeable future. Selling him would make little sense at least until Shaw is back to his best form.
And so just like the manager, we're lumbered with Rojo, like it or not. Though we're personally sympathetic to the player and his talents, the fact we're still not quite sure what to think does suggest he lacks the consistency and quality necessary of a top tier defender. But for the first time, Rojo knows he's an undisputed first-choice in the United starting lineup: it's time he proved to everyone that he's got what it takes.