Jose knew ‘Einsteins’ were right
SO, “the football Einsteins” were right after all. No Rooney, no problem, the difference as stark as the 4-0 halftime scoreline. In fact, United suddenly had so much pace you half thought someone had pressed the fast forward button.
Even Juan Mata looked sprightly, Paul Pogba was able to show his tricks without Rooney interfering with his space and United finally looked like a Mourinho side. All in all, a good weekend for the Special One with Chelsea suggesting it was not all his fault at Stamford Bridge either.
But first to United. With Wayne Rooney masquerading as a No.10 they had been playing the first few games in slow motion, waiting for the skipper to gather the ball, make his full turning circle, look up and then decide to which non-threatening teammate he was going to ping a non-threatening ball. By which time the opposition had regrouped and precious few options were open.
If we, “the football Einsteins”, could see it, then a smart cookie like Mourinho surely could. Of course, he could, which is why the only logical explanation for his persisting with Rooney was to show the player himself and the watching world that he can’t hack it as the creative fulcrum. In other words, to give him enough rope to hang himself.
When he arrived at Old Trafford, Mourinho may have thought there was still mileage in the England man – he did try to sign him for Chelsea a couple of years ago. But he had to play him a few times to be convinced that Rooney, despite his manic desire and best cheek-puffing efforts, cannot cut it in the No.10 role.
Once a player loses pace it is a logical step to play him deeper if he retains the basic skills and has the football brain to adapt. Rooney has the football brain but his loss of pace, coupled with the fact that the game has speeded up, has rendered him lumbering and ineffective. He has been the shackle that United have been playing with.
With no place up front either where Marcus Rashford, 11 years his junior, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, three years his senior, have made such an impact, Rooney finds himself with nowhere to go. Nor is he helped by having lively young players – Rashford, Pogba, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard around him – or genuinely more creative ones – Mata and Ander Herrera – there too.
This was not a given at the start of the season and Mourinho was surely right to think Rooney would still have a significant role to play. Mindful of his own reputation and that he had to tread carefully at Old Trafford, the manager was not going to poke anyone in the eye, you might say, least of all the club and national captain and one of United’s all-time greats.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, yes, he could be his ruthless self and won plaudits for that bit of banishment as the German is taking the club for an expensive ride – but not Rooney even though he, too, has had his mercenary moments.
But Mourinho had to be sure or there could have been a media outcry and he had to show the player himself – as he did on Saturday by giving him a front-row seat to see how it should be done. But he was also quick to defend him, saying he still has a role to play – which he has in a season in which United are competing on five fronts.
Mourinho is already nursing Ibrahimovic and the chances are the big Swede will fade in the winter. Rashford also may not be able to keep up this momentum – young players often experience a dip. So Rooney will still play plenty of games – it’s just that he will not start in the big ones.
Eventually, we may come to say Mourinho has handled the Rooney issue well but the player needs to accept his diminished role – that he is no longer “the big man” anymore and gets on with being just a squad man.
For the Portuguese, it suggests there’s a new maturity about him – and he’s been made well aware that at Old Trafford any new manager is treading on egg shells. But he cannot resist dipping into his treasured lexicon of quotations and the “Einstein” one is another gem. If only he could see the irony of blaming everyone but himself when things go awry…
At Chelsea, he had a point yet no one listened. Had he apologised to Dr Eva Carneiro, he might still have been there. But far from what has become known as “the doctor incident” being solely to blame for the demise of his second coming at Stamford Bridge, he was justified in demanding new players.
The team that cake-walked the title in 2015 had peaked and was in need of rejuvenation. He could see it but Roman Abramovich couldn’t. As Antonio Conte has already discovered, when it comes to spending, the Chelsea owner can swing between Imelda Marcos and Scrooge – and lately he has been expecting his managers to make the best of it.
He denied Mourinho reinforcements which led to some hasty sales in which Mata and Kevin de Bruyne departed and a few duds arrived, and he has already prevented Conte from signing the players he wanted.
After the losses to Liverpool and Arsenal, it is clear that Conte has a bigger job than either he or his boss bargained for. And they hesitated about giving John Terry a contract! Mourinho always knew it and even “Einsteins” can see it now.