Commentary

Rooney's woes are a gift for Mourinho, Man United and Mkhitaryan

By Samuel Charles
@SoccerIsArt

Wayne Rooney's woeful performance in Manchester United's 3-1 loss at Watford on Sunday sparked a slew of speculation about the club icon's status at Old Trafford, with many suggesting this created a conundrum for Jose Mourinho, but Rooney's struggles should make things easier for the new coach to make better decisions.

Rooney scored just eight goals last year, it was his lowest Premier League total since scoring six in 33 appearances during the 2002-03 debut season for Everton, made at the age of 16 for the Toffees.

Approaching his 31st birthday. As players go, Rooney feels an old 31, having already made 718 rugged appearances for club and country, his presence has become a liability for a Man United team that has lost its last three games in all competitions.

Positional versatility may be Rooney's only remaining elite quality, a quality one could argue has been a problem in recent years, with United coaches cobbling together lineups around the idea that Rooney must have a place, somewhere, regardless of lineup, formation or opposition.

Rooney’s performance in Sunday’s loss was widely panned by pundits and fans, this two and half minutes of video replaying his errors are a horror show gone viral.

Comparisons have been made since Sunday's debacle about how much more aggressive Pep Guardiola was to jettison Joe Hart at Manchester City, as well as keeping Yaya Toure out of his lineup. To be fair to Mourinho, and in spite of Toure's quality, it's not the same. Rooney has been the face of the Premier League, United and the Three Lions for a decade.

Phasing out an icon long associated with one team is never easy in any sport or league, which is why Rooney's poor play is a blessing in disguise. Two different polls by United fan sites saw over 90 percent of readers voting to have their captain dropped since Sunday's disastrous outing.

Mourinho will now be seen as acquiescing to the wishes of fans and pundits rather than being blamed for pushing out the club legend. (Sam Allardyce may face a trickier proposition with Rooney and the English national team.)

Between the League Cup, Europa League and FA Cup, there will be plenty of opportunities for Rooney to play, but Mourinho needs to find his best 11 for the Premier League, which will no doubt be prioritized, one without Rooney.

The firestorm surrounding Rooney comes with the ancillary benefit of lessening the scrutiny on other United players, and its coach.

Questions abound. Paul Pogba has been guilty of trying to do way too much since arriving, as if trying to justify his astronomical transfer fee within his first few weeks upon returning to Old Trafford.

Pogba didn’t play as poorly at Euro 2016 as perception seems to suggest, but one thing was clear during his summer with France -- Pogba is only an elite player when playing in central midfield.

Given the freedom to roam going forward, taking advantage of his range and defensive qualities tracking back. Pogba’s not an attacking midfielder, and playing him in defensive midfield doesn't take advantage of the many offensive skills he does possess.

United spent over $120 million on Pogba. Clearly he’s not the world’s best, but he was massively influential for Juve, when properly utilized, and if you're going to splash the cash, you have to put him in position to succeed.

At Juve, Pogba played in left-central midfield beside Arturo Vidal or Claudio Marchisio, and ahead of Andrea Pirlo -- and then beside Sami Khedira with Marchisio in Pirlo’s role.

Thus far Pogba has been playing beside Marouane Fellaini, a pairing that is an affront to soccer fans the world over.

Michael Carrick or Ander Herrera may be better fits, or perhaps Carrick behind Herrera and Pogba, but what seems most likely is that United will have to find Pogba a partner in the transfer market for the future.

In order to get the most out of Pogba, he must be allowed room to roam, but Rooney also likes to wander. Against Watford, Rooney was dropping into Pogba's lap, creating a lack of understanding all over, less creativity up front, and defensive imbalance.

Right after accepting the job Mourinho made a point of saying Rooney would "never play 50 meters from goal," but that seems to be the only place he was playing against Watford.

Pogba’s Juve rarely played with a central attacking midfielder. The same was true at Paris Saint-Germain, where Zlatan Ibrahimovic set scoring records last season in a similar system, in front of two central mids.

Ibrahimovic likes being a focal point as a true striker; he also likes to drop deep and combine -- which means he's often better off without a second striker or attacking mid below him.

If you acknowledge that both Pogba and Ibra are currently better players than Rooney, meaning Man U should cater to their strengths; this eliminates another area Rooney favors, behind the striker.

There may be room in that area when Marcus Rashford, 18, or Anthony Martial, 20, are playing striker.

United's two young attackers are each dynamic and capable of playing on the wing. But both have spent more time at striker than out wide, and if you play one on each flank they're a bit redundant -- while starving the big Swede of the polished delivery he received from Angel Di Maria and Co,. at PSG.

Mkhitaryan must start. Man United scored 49 EPL goals last season, nine fewer than the club's previous low in the Premier League era, of 58 in 2004-2005, and barely half of United's 97 league goals in the 1999-2000 season.

Most of England's best teams have at least one dangerous creative force. Leicester City has Riyad Mahrez, Arsenal has Mesut Ozil, Tottenham has Christian Eriksen, Chelsea has Eden Hazard, Liverpool has Philippe Coutinho, and Manchester City has David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne.

Unless you include Rooney, and I wouldn’t, Juan Mata is the only United holdover with much creativity. But his lack of foot speed is a liability, particularly in wide areas, and Mourinho was never a fan of Mata’s at Chelsea.

There's a natural home for Henrikh Mkhitaryan on United's right wing, where he spent much of his time at Borussia Dortmund last season --- when he led the Bundesliga in assists and was voted the Players’ Player of the Season in Germany.

Mkhitaryan had 15 assists in 31 Bundesliga games last year -- Manchester United's entire roster combined for 31 assists in 38 Premier League games last season.

The 27-year-old Armenian attacker is an excellent dribbler who glides past defenders with speed, vision, and technique. He had 11 goals last season while posting 10 or more assists for the second time in four Bundesliga campaigns.

Mourinho seems to be giving Mkhitaryan his infamous tough-love approach, forcing him to prove he'll play defense in the rough and tumble EPL before he gets Jose’s trust.

Mourinho gave Mkhitaryan just 60 minutes of playing time in United's first four games.

He suffered a thigh injury over the international break with Armenia, Mourinho then made the odd choice of giving him his first start in the derby against Manchester City, when Mkhitaryan was yanked after a poor first half, in which he aggravated his thigh injury.

He’ll be out for at least another week, but if Mourinho doesn't find a way to make Mkhitaryan a fixture on his team sheet going forward, it should be an indictment of the coach, not the player.

Rooney’s struggles should help force Mourinho to do what’s best for all parties. Finding less-important games for Rooney to appear in, and be appreciated. Finding a formation that helps Pogba and Ibrahimovic thrive -- and making Mkhitaryan a focal point of this offense for games that matter.

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