By RORY SMITH
MANCHESTER, England — On the back of two straight Premier League defeats, Manchester United named a team to face Leicester City that did not contain its captain, Wayne Rooney. By halftime, with Rooney watching from the substitutes’ bench at Old Trafford, United had a four-goal lead, José Mourinho’s side exhibiting precisely the kind of zip and poise it had recently so sorely lacked.
The logic was straightforward. With Rooney present, United had looked ponderous and predictable. In his absence, some of the old speed and slickness came rushing back. Without him, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata and the rest cut loose; he had, it seemed, been inhibiting them, clogging their space, blunting their edge. In one fell swoop, Mourinho had not only identified and isolated the problem, but solved it, too.
It was hard, then, not to believe that this emphatic 4-1 win represented something of a watershed. Gary Neville, one of Rooney’s predecessors as United’s captain, certainly felt that way, describing it as “not the end of Wayne Rooney, but the start of a different part of his career.”
There would be times, he said, when Rooney played, and others when he did not, and still more when he was deployed, as he was here, as a late substitute, an elder statesman called on when cool heads are required. There would even be occasions when he might “go to Dubai in October,” a chance to rest legs wearied by 14 exhausting years for club and country.
Mourinho, of course, could not be expected to confirm such a drastic change in status for such a high-profile player. It is not just that Rooney is the captain, and captain of his country. It is not just that he is the most prolific goal scorer in the national team’s history, or is just four shy of breaking United’s goal-scoring record, too.
No, Rooney is, for better and for worse, a national institution, and has been ever since he first burst into England’s public consciousness as a precocious 16-year-old. He has been the focal point of the country’s soccer landscape for almost a decade and a half; he is the boy wonder onto whom an entire nation’s hopes were projected, and the scapegoat who has been blamed whenever they have been dashed. He has become more than a part of the furniture. He has been a load-bearing wall.
He is not the sort of player, in other words, who can be quietly relegated to the sideline.
The debate over whether he warrants a place on United’s team has been swirling for months, if not longer. Many, particularly among United’s alumni, have found it difficult to countenance a world in which Rooney is not a central figure.
Phil Neville insisted that Rooney “must start” against Leicester, blaming his poor form on having been shuttled between positions, rather than vice versa.
Paul Ince, representative of an even earlier generation, claimed there was “nobody at Manchester United who is better than him” as a playmaker.
Mourinho is nothing if not a political animal, and he knows that too briskly drawing the curtain on the 30-year-old Rooney’s career would risk a considerable backlash. He did all he could, then, to play down Saturday’s omission. Rooney was still “my man,” he said, still “a big player for me, for this club, and for this country.”
His explanation for Rooney’s absence, though, spoke volumes. According to Mourinho, the “best solution” when facing a team like Leicester was to play with “two fast kids” — Jesse Lingard and Rashford — while letting Mata, a player with whom Mourinho has a mixed history, pull the strings. The “profile of Leicester’s defenders” called for speed, of foot and of mind.
It was an understandable, if futile, attempt to minimize the ramifications of his decision. “If Rashford doesn’t play, you ask me why,” Mourinho said. “If Lingard doesn’t play, you ask me why. You always ask about who doesn’t play.” This was, he claimed, simply a tactical choice, a juggling of resources to suit a certain opponent and a specific circumstance.
That, too, though, demonstrates that a significant shift has taken place. Luis Enrique never leaves out Lionel Messi — or Luis Suárez or Neymar — because he does not suit the occasion. It is the same with Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo, or Manchester City and Sergio Agüero.
For a long time, it applied to Rooney, too. Whatever the nature of the opponent, Sir Alex Ferguson never left Rooney out because someone else might perform better, or was more suited to the game. Stars at their very brightest do not pick and choose when to emit their light. They just shine.
Despite Mourinho’s protestations, Rooney’s absence here seemed to be an admission that he can no longer do that, and United’s subsequent performance suggested that his teammates could thrive once out from under his shadow.
And yet it is too early to suggest that Rooney has no part to play in United’s new dawn. That he is no longer the player he was is no disgrace. His challenge now is to discover the player he still can be, whether it is as an experienced head or an effective substitute, a midfield general or a supplementary striker.
Precisely what that role is remains unclear, particularly given the sense that Rooney does not fit neatly with the likes of Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, two players brought in at considerable expense this summer who like to operate in spaces Rooney once considered his domain.
Rooney has achieved enough in his career to suggest he will find a niche. He has overcome enough challenges that there is no reason to believe he will be unable to meet another. This equation, though, is not quite so simple, and the solution not quite so obvious.