José Mourinho correctly received praise for his deft handling of Wayne Rooney’s thirteenth and last season at Old Trafford. Whereas Alex Ferguson had a string of conveniently acrimonious fallouts with big players being moved on, Mourinho’s approach was more subtle – but perhaps he had no option.
Mourinho has, of course, been here before in his second stint at Chelsea with Ashley Cole and particularly Frank Lampard. The situation, at least, is simple: a club legend in decline who needs removing tactfully by an incoming manager. A weaker manager would avoid the decision currying favour at the expense of progress. An even weaker manager would give the problem a new, bumper five-year contract – ideally in this instance, your executive vice-chairman suggests otherwise.
In 2013, Mourinho highlighted why Ferguson could operate as he saw fit with any player when the two managers last faced each other. After knocking United out of the Champions League with Real Madrid, Mourinho said of Ferguson’s decision to leave Rooney on the bench:
“Sir Alex has won the right for every decision to be correct and never have a question mark against them. He is the best. He is the top.”
Going one further:
“You [reporter] are nobody to put a question like that. I am nobody. He did a great job."
Unwittingly prescient with Ferguson appointing David Moyes two months later, though I suspect the sentiment would have been somewhat different.
Aware of haughty in-house expectations of a Manchester United manager and his own reputation, Mourinho has so far gone about the task with deference and seemingly genuine warmth. Again, Mourinho may feel he has no other option. It might be sincere. It might just be the honeymoon. We can’t know for sure, but Mourinho has largely hit all the right notes off the field and, despite a visibly draining first season, looks to be happy and relishing the challenge. We’ll probably get closest to the truth if Mourinho’s United ever wins a league or two.
The regard for Rooney may also be genuine, off the field. In terms of Rooney’s contribution in games, Mourinho deployed the previously used tactic of essentially using the player’s own power against them – unconditional praise resulting in focus firmly on the player and their limitations. Mourinho was quick to, in his first press conference no less, assure Rooney of his place in the team and then later the captaincy, much to the groans of his watching detractors; not again. However, Mourinho was also very clear on where he expected Rooney to play – or rather, where he wouldn’t – and that would be as a forward.
“He will never be a No. 6 for me, he will never be someone playing 60 metres from the goal. For me he will be a No. 9, a 10, or a 9-and-a-half, but not a 6 or even an 8.”
Bingo. In Rooney’s competitive returning debut for Everton’s Europa League qualifier last week, he started as a forward. Gradually, over the course of an hour, due to his ineffectiveness or fitness or both, Rooney came deeper and deeper into midfield. A familiar account, one Mourinho did not want to indulge.
wayne— Royal Blue Mersey (@RBMersey) July 27, 2017
To compound Rooney’s plight further, he would be competing for a place with either Zlatan Ibrahimović or an assortment of quicker, sharper No. 10s with much better close control required to be effective. When Henrikh Mkhitaryan was finally given a run in the side it was, especially in Europe, thrillingly stark in comparison, before Mkhitaryan’s season later tailed off. Soberingly for Rooney, Ibrahimović is four years older than him and the Swede was relentlessly in the starting line-up up front.
“November,” Rooney replied to the question of when he had started to think he had to cut himself free from Old Trafford. “I started the season doing OK. I’d done well, I had a bad game at Watford away, and that was it [out of the team].”
Rooney had played himself out of the team, and it became quickly apparent that this was a permanent demotion. There was no animosity displayed, save for a few awkward initial interviews with the reeling captain, and Rooney has since towed that line to his credit. An ace card for Mourinho was affording Rooney the opportunity to get the all-time leading goalscorer record, which he duly netted in January with flashback aplomb… earning a draw against Stoke. Rooney’s assertion since leaving that standards have slipped at United with some signings and their attitude are, or were, probably true.
Rooney's right, we had dropped our standards. But under Mourinho we've got them back. And that's why he's now a squad player at Everton.— Stuart (@__Bingo) July 16, 2017
Whichever way you slice, that is also true.
The four years since Ferguson paved the way for Rooney to be offloaded to – curiously – Mourinho and Chelsea, Rooney’s United career has been blemished further as he’s toiled, nearly seven years since the infamous dalliance with Manchester City.
What will never be in dispute is Rooney’s place in and contribution to United’s history, and the blistering seasons witnessed last decade. A wonderful player returning back to his boyhood club worse for wear but not under a heavy cloud, in part thanks to the diplomacy and sensitivity of Mourinho’s conviction.