It’s a good thing Ed Woodward has no shame at all about convincing companies the world over to divert a portion of their revenue to Old Trafford for the prestige of being Man Utd’s Official Barbecued Shrimp/Boiled Shrimp/Broiled Shrimp/Baked Shrimp/Sautéed Shrimp/et cetera Partner. There may be no moneymaking machine in world football quite like the Manchester United Brand©®™, but it hardly matters as long as it's true that no-one can match United when it comes to wasting money.
As the suddenly omnipresent Paul Scholes is so fond of reminding us, Man Utd have spent £250m on new players under Louis Van Gaal. Some of them – Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw, Morgan Schneiderlin – look like sound buys who will justify their hefty fees and stay for a long time, having the potential to form the nucleus of the next great United team. Others – Ángel Di María, Radamel Falcao, Bastian Schweinsteiger – have been complete busts: famous names signed on massive contracts despite considerable evidence suggesting that they were either not suited to life in England, or simply past it. Those failures in the transfer market are a major reason for United’s current malaise.
The biggest waste of money by far, however, has been Wayne Rooney. Since Van Gaal came in, United have paid Rooney £27m in wages. With a contract running until the summer of 2019, Rooney stands to "earn" a further £51m (N.B. – these figures are based on Rooney’s weekly wage being £300k – his agent has claimed that the real figure may well be higher, so these numbers are on the conservative side).
Since Van Gaal came in, Rooney has scored 28 goals. 15 of those have come against Sunderland, Newcastle, Club Brugge, Ipswich, Aston Villa, QPR, Hull and Sheffield United. Yes, has also bagged a few goals against Liverpool and Arsenal, but 1. those two teams bottle their big games with such jaw-dropping regularity that this should be expected and 2. Rooney has been so bad for so long that the occasional goal in a big game can’t be allowed to mask the undeniably detrimental effect he has on his own team.
Enough has been written on Rooney’s decline to make dwelling on it unnecessary, but it’s worth highlighting a few undeniable truths to underscore how profound it has been.
Firstly, the observation that his early start as a professional, combined with his body-type, would mean that he couldn’t play at the top level long into his thirties has been proved correct. While Rooney isn’t as overweight as his fiercest critics would suggest, he has obviously slowed down considerably. There is no acceleration, no ability to change direction quickly and a worryingly low level of stamina. He looks cumbersome, clumsy and tired.
Secondly, the physical decline has exposed his technical and tactical limitations. Watching videos of the early Rooney, it’s notable that the heavy first touch, inability to dribble past players and the rather stunted understanding of positioning and movement were all there from the beginning. He stood out because of the explosive bursts of power, the visceral anger that acted as the most potent of fuels, and the capacity to outlast opponents.
It’s also worth saying that he wasn’t helped by football being revolutionised in the middle of his career: Barcelona and Spain pretty much re-wrote the rulebook, ably assisted by their arch-nemesis José Mourinho, to make football at almost all levels more technically and tactically rigorous than ever before. Whereas Rooney grew up in a relatively simplistic footballing environment where physical and mental determination won out, nowadays a high physical level is simply the base for more subtle technical and tactical flourishes (or blunders, in his case) to win (lose) games.
Shorn of his key attributes and marooned in a world that plays the sport in a way that doesn’t suit him, Rooney has become a centre-forward who kills attack after attack with poor ball-control, powerlessness in one-on-one situations or brainless positioning. When things are going badly for him – and those games are becoming more and more common, new nadirs being reached when it seemed impossible for things to get any worse – there’s no way to lift him out of his rut, and he remains too big a name to substitute without creating ‘political’ problems.
In recent years, United have tried resting him and even sending him off on his own for "warm-weather training" to improve his physical state, but now it’s clear that there’s no solution to a problem which is so basic: Rooney is simply a bad player, and there’s nothing that can be done about that.
The reality is that Man Utd have a liability on their books and they owe him £51m over three more years. If that wasn’t bad enough, just look at Marcus Rashford, an 18 year-old who was almost completely unknown a month ago, doing all of the things that the 2016 Wayne Rooney can’t.
Imagine how maddening it’s going to be when Rooney comes back into the team after the international break and starts to stink the place out again. Imagine how bad it will be next year, when instead of picking up a proper centre-forward in the summer, Rooney maintains his place in Mourinho’s new-look United and keeps on getting worse. This absolutely cannot be allowed to go on.
The obvious solution, and one that Alex Ferguson obviously realised was a necessary step before stepping down as manager, is to sell Rooney. This is a far from straightforward process, however. Whereas there would’ve been a line of potential suitors a mile long in the summer of 2013, this year’s set of interested parties is likely to be far smaller and far less inclined to do whatever it takes to prise him away.
The last couple of times Rooney was (potentially) on the market, Chelsea and Manchester City were firmly interested, willing to offer £20m plus key players of their own in Chelsea’s case, or British record transfer fees in City’s. Paris Saint-Germain have previously expressed an interest, noting that Ligue 1’s slower pace and lower level would suit Rooney almost as much as finally moving away from the North West of England wouldn’t.
In each case, Rooney was linked with an established power, or a nouveau riche up-and-comer looking to get to the next level in the Champions League. Still more-or-less at his peak, he didn’t need to be sold, as such – simply allowed to go. Money wasn’t really an issue: the decision-makers at Chelsea, City and PSG would have paid through the nose to have Rooney at their club.
Things are markedly different as we head into the summer of 2016. Now the wrong side of 30 and obviously in steep decline, Rooney very much needs to be sold to potential buyers. They would have to be reminded of the many benefits he would bring to their clubs: of his superior goalscoring capabilities; of his big-game exploits and experience; of the marketing windfalls that will come their way as a result of Rooney wearing their shirt.
United would have to have plausible explanations for his poor performances for the last few years and their desire to sell him, and the buyers would have to have extremely deep pockets if they were going to take on his ridiculous salary, never mind pay a substantial fee for the privilege to do so.
This leaves a minuscule pool of buying clubs to choose from. Chelsea and Manchester City will have seen enough of Rooney to know that he can no longer play at the level they aspire to, so they’re out. PSG will lose Zlatan Ibrahimović this summer, but their goal isn’t domestic success anymore and Rooney is unable to propel them towards the kind of continental domination they have in their sights. Cross them off the list.
What about the other mega-rich clubs? Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern are all far too good to bother looking at Rooney now. Arsène Wenger would presumably rather withdraw Arsenal’s entire bank balance in £5 notes and hand them out to members of the public than commit a sizeable chunk of his club’s resources to signing and paying a 30 year-old deadbeat. A handful of Serie A clubs still have considerable wealth and a willingness to take on ageing legends, but it’s long since been established that Rooney wouldn’t be suited to living on the continent and having to learn another language.
Following the money like this leaves United looking at clubs in the United States or China. It goes without saying that Rooney would need no small amount of persuasion to go and play in those divisions, even if they are more appropriate for his current level of (in)ability than the Premier League.
The good news for United is that Rooney would be able to match or even exceed his current earnings in both Major League Soccer and the Chinese Super League. In both cases there would be definite interest in signing Rooney and there are precedents for players of his stature moving to those leagues and succeeding. The prospect of a few years in New York or Los Angeles may appeal (perhaps less so Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou).
The bad news is that, unless his European Championships are deeply and profoundly awful (watch this space), Rooney will continue as the England captain far into the foreseeable future, and will hardly accept being fobbed off to some backwater league that functions as a luxury retirement home for European players who don’t have the dignity to quit when they should. He’ll doubtless feel he can still play Premier League and international football, and won’t want to voluntarily end his career at the top level or uproot his young family. As much as Man Utd may want to play the MLS/CSL card and turn a £51m debt into an unexpected £20m windfall, it’s not going to happen.
There is, thankfully, one final option, and it may well be a viable one: Everton. Flush with cash due to the latest Premier League TV deal and recent investment from Farhad Moshiri (as well as the impending sales of Romelu Lukaku and John Stones), the Toffees are in a position to pay Rooney a significant salary. There’s obviously an emotional aspect to a return to Goodison Park that no other transfer can offer, and one that may well mean that money slides down Rooney’s list of priorities: he can go home to play out his career for his boyhood club, and do so before he becomes well-and-truly useless, exactly as Carlos Tevez did when he returned to Boca Juniors. Additionally, he can repair his damaged relationship with the fans – a bond that obviously matters, or at least once mattered, to him.
As for Everton, it would be great PR for the club and for the new (partial) owner. It could also be spun as a huge statement of intent on their part. Rooney’s return would lift the spirits of everyone at the club, especially in a summer in which they will probably be starting a new project from scratch. The numerous youngsters coming through at Goodison, who have so obviously struggled without guidance this season, would finally have a real leader who has been there and done it all.
A relative lack of expectation at Everton would also mean Rooney’s flaws as a player would be more easily forgiven, and the fact that he could stay in the Premier League and play for a big club would surely make it a goer for Rooney. In the quite likely event that Rooney baulks at taking a pay-cut, United could split the cost with Everton. Paying someone to play for someone else is hardly the best idea in the world, but United would still stand to save £23.4m, assuming Rooney’s contract with Everton maintained his current salary, started on July 1 and split his wages 50:50.
All things considered, it’s a plan with no drawbacks. Everyone’s a winner: United get Rooney out of the team and (sort of) off the wage-bill, and may even be able to use Rooney to get Lukaku in exchange; Rooney gets to go home and represent the club he loves; Everton get their crown jewel back after twelve years away. Frankly, if Ed Woodward isn’t working night and day to try and make this happen, he’s simply not doing his job properly.