LONDON – We have seen the best of Wayne Rooney.
He will be 31 next month and the Manchester United captain will not improve as a footballer. He has lost that explosive yard of pace and now relies more on his ability to pass rather than passing defenders effortlessly. The sands of time have caught up with him and while he remains a good player, it is unrealistic to believe it will be anything but a downward spiral now.
Could the same apply to Jose Mourinho?
Have we also seen the best of the Special One?
As a manager his age — 53 — is irrelevant. Managers in their sixties are successful.
But has Mourinho lost his magic touch?
Has the game moved on without him?
Does he still have the drive, the inner strength, the magic that has put him alongside — and above — the best of his generation?
In the past six years he has won two titles, an acceptable total for most managers, but Mourinho also left Real Madrid and Chelsea under considerable shadows.
In 2014-15 Mourinho led Chelsea to the Premier League title; its defense of its crown last season saw the champions nearer the bottom of the table than the top and for the second time he was sacked by Roman Abramovich. In his last 33 games as manager of Chelsea and Manchester United, Mourinho has lost 14 matches.
Mourinho is suffering the worst sequence of results since making his name with FC Porto 14 years ago. Given his anti-social baggage he was not so much United’s ideal choice to succeed Louis van Gaal as the only realistic candidate, especially with Pep Guardiola in the blue corner of Manchester.
United invested £150 million on Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly this summer plus free agent Zlatan Ibrahimovic, yet their presence, apart from Ibrahimovic, has seen minimal improvement on the soulless era of van Gaal.
Given Mourino’s record, we sat back to see a new United unfold. In fact, United has made a worse start to the season than it did under the Dutchman last time around, its sterile display in the 3-1 defeat at Watford bringing back unhappy memories of LVG. Mourinho blamed the referee (predictably, but unfairly), bad luck (a brilliant save by the opposing goalkeeper is not bad luck) and apparently a hangover from the van Gaal days which knocked the team’s confidence. He has criticized Mkhitaryan, Jesse Lingard and Luke Shaw in public, something Sir Alex Ferguson never did.
Guess who he has not blamed?
Making any considered judgment about a manager or a team after five games is obviously premature. Yet I wrote in my preview to the season that since 2000 only once have the Premier League champions lost more than five games.
With two losses in the debit column already, if the tradition of the last 16 years is to follow then United can afford only three more defeats in their remaining 33 matches. That’s a big ask. History can be a powerful opponent.
However, with the season still in its infancy the galvanizing effect Pep Guardiola is having on Manchester City is obvious. The Blues have won all nine games since the Catalan took over, City is playing the sort of high tempo, exhilarating and effective football it would usually take a coach a season to instill.
Kevin de Bruyne, sold by Mourinho when he was at Chelsea after just nine games in two years, has been moved to a more central midfield role and is already a candidate to be the Footballer of the Year. Raheem Sterling, who looked a lost soul for City and England earlier in the year, is born-again to an extent the Football Association should wonder what he puts in his tea. Alexandar Kolarov has been switched from fullback to partner John Stones in central defense and after his performance in the 2-1 win over Sunderland, Guardiola called it “one of the best I’ve seen from a center-back.”
Guardiola has also made some tough calls, offloading Joe Hart, Samir Nasri, and Wilfried Bony, while YaYa Toure is yesterday’s man.
In contrast, Mourinho has failed to tackle the Rooney factor while United’s system, whatever it is, does not work. Pogba has been playing in a deep role alongside Maroune Fellaini — at Juventus he played in a midfield three and this is how he should operate at United, but not with Rooney as the third man.
Leaving Rooney out of Saturday’s side to face Leicester City is largely accepted, and it does seem as if the world is picking on the player though when you are captain of Manchester United and England the spotlight will always be on you. Demoting Rooney would have a knock-on effect for his international career, but that is not Mourinho’s concern.
It is difficult to see a player of Rooney’s stature on the bench indefinitely. If you drop Rooney, he cannot be brought back in a game or two. It would effectively be saying his time at Old Trafford is up. He is contracted until 2019, so if United decided to sell him in January he would probably fetch £30 million. The fee would not be a huge problem; his £300,000 a week salary obviously restricts the number of would-be purchasers.
His previous club, Everton, is an intriguing possibility, but it would drive a coach and horses through their wage structure. Apart from the Premier League, the big bucks are in China, though Wayne Rooney of Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao has a surreal look about it.
Rooney played in the 3-1 League Cup win over Northampton on Wednesday, starting as central striker. With the score 1-1 he was shunted out to the right to accommodate the heavy artillery of Ibrahimovic and Marcus Rashford, the teenager scoring his almost obligatory goal.
“I know that some football Einsteins — football is full of Einsteins — I know that they tried to delete 16 years of my career,” said Mourinho on Thursday. “They tried to delete an unbelievable history of Man United football club and to focus on a bad week with three bad results. But that’s the new football — it’s full of Einsteins.”
Rooney is not a busted flush. He still has plenty to offer —whether that is at Manchester United remains to be seen. Even Einstein doesn’t know.
Amazing run: Arsene Wenger is celebrating his 20th anniversary as Arsenal manager. In that time 232 Premier League manager have come and gone. The Frenchman is likely to be the last to achieve this landmark, as these days three years almost qualifies you for a gold watch.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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