Posted on September 26th, 2016
The Jose Mourinho era at Manchester United may have suffered a blip in recent weeks, but the emphatic 4-1 victory against Leicester at Old Trafford may have ended any talk of a crisis. However, there are still questions that the ‘Special One’ must find an answer to in the coming weeks if they are to fulfil his ambition to win everything, particularly the conundrum that has emerged through the role of world-record signing Paul Pogba and Wayne Rooney in the team. Betway still believe that Manchester United are in a strong position to challenge for the Premier League title, but Mourinho will need to find an effective solution if both are to play a prominent role in the starting line-up this season.
There was always likely to be a change of emphasis and approach when Mourinho replaced Louis Van Gaal in the Manchester United hotseat, with fans believing that their team would look to move the ball quicker and attack with more conviction. They have been proved right during the opening weeks of the 2016/2017 season, with a conservative approach replaced by a forward-thinking one that enables the team to remain on the front foot and apply pressure further up the pitch. There is a certain level of fluidity within Mourinho’s philosophy, particularly in midfield where one of the two holding players can interchange with the number ten whenever the opportunity presents itself, while the three forwards can also move away from their starting positions in order to move defenders out of position. Mourinho also prefers his teams to get the ball forward at pace, with the holding midfielders not only doing an invaluable job of shielding the back four, but also coming deep to get the ball and become the instigators of play.
Some would argue that neither Pogba nor Rooney fit the archetypal role of a holding midfielder, but the former is probably more suited to playing there than the latter. The 23-year-old, who joined Manchester United from Juventus for £89 million, certainly has the engine and power to be effective as a playmaker from a deep-lying role, but the Frenchman needs a player alongside him who is willing to do the defensive work and remain in his position, thus allowing Pogba to express himself further up the pitch in areas where he can affect the game. Sitting deep does not suit Rooney, as although he has the ability to spray passes around the pitch with relative ease, he looks uncomfortable; playing a natural goalscorer in any other position than one where they can affect the game in the final third takes away every quality they bring to the table.
Is it the end for Rooney?
Mourinho’s decision to drop Rooney for the Leicester game may have been as a result of a player going through a crisis in confidence, but it may also have been a tactical move. Manchester United lined up with Ander Herrera alongside Pogba, with Juan Mata playing behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic and support from Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard out wide. Herrera certainly offers the ability to dictate the play, but some would argue that Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin would offer greater defensive structure and allow for a more creative midfielder to drive forward. However, the greatest problem for Rooney is that, given his current form and confidence, there appears to be no room for him in the way that Mourinho sets up his teams; the fact that Manchester United swept Leicester aside with superb, free-flowing football without Rooney in the team may also add to the 30-year-old’s woes. There is no question that fans will back their team to win the title with Betway after watching them dismantle the defending champions with relative ease, but they could move forward without Rooney in the starting line-up
His effect on football matches appears to be on the wane, and although Mourinho stated that Rooney would never play as a midfielder during his reign at Manchester United upon his appointment, going back on his word would suggest he is desperately trying to find a spot for a player who has given so much for club and country over the years. Unfortunately, there is no room for sentiment when it comes to getting the best from Manchester United from a tactical perspective, particularly as Rooney is unlikely to force his way in the number ten role or upfront. Mata makes a big difference to the team when playing in the hole as his vision and passing is suited to bringing others into play and stretching defences, while Ibrahimovic appears to have nailed down the forward role.
Pogba and Rooney in the same line-up
It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Pogba and Rooney could be utilised within Mourinho’s preferred system, even though it appears a distant possibility at present. Pogba will certainly start every game so long that he is not injured or suspended given the substantial outlay and effort that Manchester United made to bring him back to Old Trafford, but it is feasible that Rooney could play a prominent role behind the striker, or playing up top himself. The former is perhaps more likely than the latter, although it may be a role given to Pogba in games where Mourinho decides to opt for more defensive-minded holding midfielders.
Rooney could also make himself available as a back-up striker to Ibrahimovic, and although he may have lost the yard of pace that made him so dangerous playing on the shoulder of defenders, he will never lose his ability to find the back of the net. Playing upfront under Mourinho should suit his game more than it did under Van Gaal; Rooney often found himself isolated and trying to hold the ball up when he had nobody around him to lay the ball off to, but a more pro-active manager such as Mourinho would ensure his team were tactically set up to pass and move around the forward to create space for goal-scoring chances.