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The Great Red Debate: The Rooney conundrum

In this week’s Great Red Debate, Busby Babe writers Ryan Baldi and Jack Sargeant discuss how José Mourinho could use Wayne Rooney next season, and what the future may hold for the club captain.

Manchester United v Southampton - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Ryan: It seemed as though Wayne Rooney had carved out a new role for himself over the last six months or so.

In recognition of his waning pace and athleticism, the Manchester United captain has been operating in a deep midfield role for club and country recently — rather than in his customary position as a striker — and has received some praise for his performances from many fans.

"Sometimes you have to make choices in your career," Rooney said in May. "And at the minute it's probably better for me to play deeper. Next season with Manchester United, that's where I see myself playing.

England v Iceland - Round of 16: UEFA Euro 2016 Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

But there are also many who disagree, and suggest that Rooney is unsuited to such a role. The fact that he can play a few cross-field passes, does not make him a top-drawer centre-midfielder, they argue.

And new United boss José Mourinho is among those who believe Rooney is not a natural midfielder.

"Maybe he's not a striker any more." Mourinho said in his first press conference as United manager last month. "Maybe he is not a No 9 anymore but he will never, with me, be a No.6. He will never be 50 metres from the goal. For me he will be a No 9 or a No 10 or a nine-and-a-half, but with me he will never be a No 6 or even a No 8."

So Rooney’s career preservation plan may have to be put on hold.

Mourinho seems pretty sure that Rooney will not be considered for selection in his midfield, so where exactly does that leave the man who is only five goals shy of eclipsing Sir Bobby Charlton to become the club’s all-time highest goal-scorer?

With the emergence of Marcus Rashford, and the arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimović, where does Rooney figure in the pecking order of strikers at Old Trafford?

Jack: I suspect that Mourinho will try and shoehorn Rooney into his starting lineup as a second striker, or the attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1. I don’t think it’s an ideal situation — if I had to name my strongest United XI, Rooney wouldn’t be in it — but I suspect the politics of dropping the captain and best-paid player render things too complicated for even Mourinho to meddle. I fully expect he’s going to be on the teamsheet for the first game of the season.

I still think Rooney could be a useful player, and he offers attacking attributes that United’s other forwards don’t; but it has been a while since we’ve seen genuinely world class performances, and I’m not optimistic he’ll be able to recover his best form at his relatively elderly footballing age.

In theory, Rooney’s best role is one playing around the edge of the penalty area, sniffing around for second balls and snapshots. He’s an instinctive player, at his best when he doesn’t have to think too hard; and given that Mourinho’s No. 10s traditionally aren’t in the creative Juan Mata or Andrés Iniesta mould — instead they tend, like Frank Lampard, to be tasked with supporting a physical centre forward like Didier Drogba or, in United’s case, Zlatan Ibrahimović — I think this is actually the best way to squeeze performances from a fading player.

Ryan: I think the idea of playing him as a No. 10 is the simplest compromise. But Mourinho’s transfer dealings so far lead me to believe that he might yet choose not to play with a No. 10 per se — by which I mean there may be no place for a central attacking midfielder.

Both Ibrahimović and Mkhitaryan operated in a 4-3-3 system last season, and both benefitted from being able to move into the space that would have been taken up by a No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 — Ibra dropping deep from his centre-forward position, and Mkhitaryan coming inside from the right; if a No. 10 had been there, their path into that central area would’ve been more crowded.

Manchester United v Crystal Palace - The Emirates FA Cup Final Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images

And, regardless of whether we actually sign him or not, Pogba doesn’t have a natural position within a 4-2-3-1. He plays on the left of the central midfielders in Juventus’ 3-5-2, and for France, for the most part, he has played on the right of the midfield three in a 4-3-3. If last night’s Euro 2016 final showed us anything, it was that Pogba is not anywhere near as effective as he could be when he’s forced to play in a double pivot, with the restriction of added defensive responsibility.

So, though I agree that Mourinho will try to shoe-horn Rooney into the side somehow, I’m not at all convinced that he would play him as a No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1, where his mere presence would stifle two (possibly three if Pogba signs) of the club’s big summer signings.

My feeling is that Mourinho’s press conference comments were a kind of warning shot to Rooney, inferring that his place is not guaranteed. It’s going to be interesting to see how the manager makes it work, and also, how soon he’ll change things if it’s not working.

Jack: You certainly make a very good point; quite often under van Gaal United looked clogged up in the attacking midfield area, enabling them to dominate possession but stifling penetrating runs. It’s clear that any successful strategy needs to strike a balance between the two. However, I suspect Mourinho will stick with his tried-and-tested formula rather than take his cues from United’s summer signings, and I don’t think his standard 4-2-3-1 will be anathema to the new arrivals.

Let’s take his most recent title-winning team — Chelsea 2014-15 — as an example. He played one powerful forward, Diego Costa, in front of a relatively fluid front three. The clever movement of Oscar allowed both Willian and Eden Hazard to cut in off the flanks without compromising Chelsea’s attacking flow, and Cesc Fàbregas or Ramires — two fairly attack-minded midfielders — were given the freedom to make forward runs ahead of the nominal holding player, Nemanja Matić.

I think the reason it all clicked was that Mourinho isn’t actually very bothered about possession. He’s more than happy to play direct and on the counter-attack, in which the space is offered up by the opponent rather than created through intricate attacking play. And as a result, the fear that playing Rooney as a No. 10 would slow the pace of United’s attacks is minimised.

It strikes me that United have similar components to that Chelsea team — two wide players, in Martial and Mkhitaryan, who enjoy cutting inside; a strong centre-forward (though you’re right to suggest Zlatan’s at his most dangerous when he drops deep; perhaps that could be a trigger for Rooney to drive ahead of him into the penalty area); a holding midfielder, Schneiderlin; and a slightly more attack-minded one, Herrera, Schweinsteiger, Pogba (if we’re being optimistic) — and so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if things looked rather similar. That isn’t to say Rooney would be gloriously effective as the 10, but that it isn’t necessarily a tactical non-starter.

Manchester United v Liga De Quito - FIFA Club World Cup 2008 Final Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

Ryan: No, that’s fair. Maybe it’s more out of hope than anything, but I would much prefer us to move away from the 4-2-3-1 that hasn’t worked for the past two years. I totally get that we will have a different manager, so it wouldn’t look nearly the same. But I can’t help feeling as though the players we have (and hope to have) are better suited to 4-3-3 — and it was even the formation that worked best under van Gaal when he chose to use it in his first season.

Wherever Mourinho has been, he’s played different formations, but the "system" is always the same. There is always a guy who is a kind of designated No. 10, if you like. By which I mean that there is a midfielder or attacking midfielder who has greater freedom that the others.

During his last stint at Stamford Bridge, that was Hazard, regardless of the fact that Oscar lined up as the central attacking midfielder. At Inter, it was Sneijder, who was part of the midfield three in a 4-3-3. And at Real Madrid, it was Özil, who played either on the right of the front three, or in the midfield in a 4-3-3.

So my feeling is that, next season, Mkhitaryan will be our number 10, so to speak, even though he will likely start on the right. Again, this could just be personal bias, and I could end up being wide of the mark, but I struggle to see a regular attacking role for Rooney in the long run.

Which would bring up the question of how and when do you phase him out? And what to do with the captaincy?

Maybe those are questions better saved for a future Great Red Debate, as I don’t really want to start digging a grave for a player who, despite his obvious decline, has been a great servant to the club for over a decade.

But I will ask you this, what does a successful season for Wayne Rooney look like, realistically?

Jack: I think Rooney can personally be pleased by just holding down a position in the first team. However, if we’re going to be celebrating his appearance on the teamsheet rather than tutting, we’re going to have see a little more than he’s shown of late. 10-15 league goals would constitute a more than acceptable return, I think.

Ryan: I agree. I think a double-figure goals return, plus involvement in the key matches, where his experience and know-how could still be of benefit, would be a solid effort.

But, broadly speaking, I think a general phasing out of Rooney — or at least, a reduced dependency on him — may have already begun.