Were you feeling mischievous, you might suggest that Jose Mourinho picking Wayne Rooney as a striker against Fenerbahce was handing him the spade to dig his own grave. Twelve years has passed since Rooney first heard the applause of the Old Trafford crowd, his debut against Thursday’s opponents providing one of the old ground’s most memorable nights. A lot has changed.
Against 2016 Fenerbahce, we finally saw Manchester United click through the gears that were left unused on Monday at Anfield. Just like Arsenal only played Ludogorets on Wednesday, United only played a struggling team sat ninth in Turkey’s top flight, yet – just as on Wednesday – that does not bar you from drawing positives.
This was a similar performance to the 4-1 victory over Leicester last month, defensive ineptitude punished to the maximum by a fluid band of attacking midfielders intent on having fun. After slip-up against Feyenoord in September, United are in a qualification position by October. Four points from their last three games will do it. It should be shelling peas.
Star of the show was Juan Mata, demonstrating exactly what Jose Mourinho must want from a No. 10 with gorgeous fleet of foot and passing in tight areas. Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba came next, continuing their off-field friendship with some wonderful link-up play and exquisite finishes. Michael Carrick’s range of passing from deep continues to ask the question of why Marouane Fellaini starts in this team. These were the moments of real quality that took United clear, yet none involved their once boy wonder. All involved players in positions that Rooney has been crowbarred into.
That is not to say that Rooney was desperately poor. He completed 20 passes, gave the ball away five times, made a couple of tackles and cushioned a simple pass to Lingard for the fourth goal, although he didn’t have a shot. He generally “looked busy”, that ultimate cliche used to damn any footballler with faint praise.
The problem is that Rooney’s “busy” used to include a goal, dropping deep before bursting forward and five shots on target. If this was an audition to start Sunday’s game against Chelsea, Thursday’s captain will retake his place on the bench. Those who predicted Rooney’s return for United’s big games were sadly mistaken. This really might be a permanent changing of the guard.
Nor should Rooney expect to. Zlatan Ibrahimovic struggled at Anfield on Monday, but is better at holding up the ball and bringing others into play, exactly what United’s attacking midfielders thrive upon. There is then a straight choice to be made between Anthony Martial, Lingard and Marcus Rashford for two positions. We’re just assuming that Henrikh Mkhitaryan doesn’t even exist anymore. Despite the chanting of his name by a Stretford End intent on showing its support, Rooney is becoming the afterthought.
I was at Old Trafford on the night of September 28, 2004, witnessing the birth of a Manchester United star. For all the criticism of Rooney’s form over the last two years, it is worth cherishing just how exciting that night was. Fans streamed out of the stadium already crowning their new king. They really thought they had seen the White Pele.
The Rooney of 2004 was an extraordinarily alluring player to watch, tenacity that occasionally spilled over into aggression and the energy to truly put 100% into every sprint, every pass, every shot. Like Marcus Rashford last winter, there was a raw exuberance to Rooney’s personality on the pitch that made him box office. He has always had a stocky physique, but back then his frame seemed to assist his game, not hinder it.
“Maybe he will become the player of the century,” wondered a shell-shocked Christoph Daum, Fenerbahce’s manager on that night 12 years ago. Not quite, though we shouldn’t let the present cloud the magnificent past. That’s the problem with reunions: the fresh-faced musician you remember having a crush on at school now sells cleaning products from the boot of his car and tells you loudly about his golf handicap.