Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is under pressure to drop Wayne Rooney, with the captain’s clanking performances emblematic of the team’s struggles.
Mourinho’s side visits third-tier Northampton Town today in the League Cup, where defeat would rank alongside their humiliating 4-0 loss to Milton Keynes Dons in this competition under Louis van Gaal in 2014.
United has lost its last three matches and there is clamour among supporters and journalists for Rooney to be removed from the starting XI.
In an online poll by the United fanzine Red Issue, over 99 percent of respondents called for him to be axed.
“Where do you want Wayne Rooney to play? Or should he be playing at all?” former England captain Alan Shearer wrote in The Sun after United’s 3-1 defeat at Watford on Sunday.
“Not on yesterday’s performance, it is fair to say.”
Despite United winning its first three league games, Rooney’s lacklustre displays meant his place was already under scrutiny.
With United having since lost to Manchester City, Feyenoord, in the Europa League, and Watford, the calls for him to be dropped are getting louder.
Rooney, 30, was rested for last Thursday’s trip to Feyenoord, but he has started all of United’s other games under Mourinho.
It was a similar story during Louis van Gaal’s two-year tenure as manager. The Dutchman sidelined Rooney only once, for a 2-0 defeat at Stoke City on Boxing Day last year.
David Moyes, van Gaal’s predecessor, was similarly faithful to the United number 10, whose career he launched at Everton.
But Alex Ferguson lost patience with the England captain towards the end of his storied tenure.
Ferguson claimed Rooney had asked to leave the club for a second time in 2013 and he disappeared from view in the dying days of the Scot’s 26-year reign.
Mourinho, whose side host Leicester City on Saturday, has said he would have no qualms about dropping Rooney.
“I can take him out. No problem for me to take him out,” Mourinho said following United’s last-gasp 1-0 win at Hull City last month.
As has been the case for much of his career, debate continues to rage about Rooney’s best position.
Never quite a true No 9, but not a classic number 10 either, Rooney was deployed in central midfield by Roy Hodgson during England’s calamitous Euro 2016 campaign.
Rooney has said he is open to the idea of moving into midfield as his career progresses.
Mourinho appeared to nix that ambition, in the short term at least, prior to the season.
“For me, Wayne will be a No 9 or a number 10 or a No 9-and-a-half,” Mourinho said. “But with me he will never be a No 6, not even a No 8.”
Yet in the loss at Watford, Rooney started the game in a midfield three alongside Marouane Fellaini and record signing Paul Pogba.
Once again he looked off the pace, even after moving into a number 10 role behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the second half.
A “highlights” video flagging up his sloppy touches and wayward passing circulated widely on social media.
“I think playing him as a number 10 is holding back United,” former Arsenal defender Martin Keown said in the Daily Mail.
A knock-on effect of Mourinho’s deployment of Rooney as a number 10 is that several of his teammates have been prevented from playing in their preferred positions.
Teenage striker Marcus Rashford, last season’s breakthrough star, started on the left wing against Watford.
Juan Mata and close-season signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan, both more conventional number 10s, have had to content themselves with wide roles or places on the bench.
Perhaps most worryingly, in using a 4-2-3-1 system to accommodate Rooney at number 10, Mourinho has been fielding Pogba as a holding midfielder, denying him the freedom to attack that he thrived upon at Juventus.
“Until they find the right balance, you won’t see the best of Pogba,” said Liverpool midfielder turned BBC pundit Danny Murphy.
Rooney needs only four goals to surpass Bobby Charlton’s United scoring record of 249 goals, but his first-team status is more fragile than ever.
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