Can Wayne Rooney manage his physical decline at Manchester United?

Credit: @ESPNFC
Credit: @ESPNFC /

Wayne Rooney’s start to the season has been so lacklustre that questions regarding his long-term future at Manchester United are no longer seen as knee-jerk or premature.

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The 29-year-old began the campaign playing as a lone striker but moved into the No. 10 role after a number of other players were tested in that position. In the second half against Arsenal, he was even deployed as a winger on the left-hand side.

However, while manager Louis van Gaal has yet to solve an enduring problem in Rooney’s career – determining what his best position is – it’s his physical decline in recent months that has been so alarming.

The pace, power and explosiveness that made him such an exciting player in seasons gone by has now disappeared. Perhaps that’s not too surprising for someone about to turn 30 years old, since it’s at that age when many footballers begin to see their physical powers diminish.

Sir Alex Ferguson, writing in his book My Autobiography, worryingly suggested that Rooney wouldn’t be able to continue playing into his mid-thirties on account of his physique. The signs at the start of this season are that his projection was maybe a little generous. After all, comparisons can be drawn with Robin van Persie’s struggles during last season. The Dutchman noticeably lacked the sharpness required to play at the very top level and was subsequently sold.

Whether or not Rooney will suffer the same fate remains to be seen. Finding a buyer for the club’s highest-paid player will be no easy task.

Credit: @ManUtdMEN
Credit: @ManUtdMEN /

Rooney’s performance in United’s 3-0 defeat to Arsenal was ultimately the latest in a series of displays that illustrate his physical struggles. 

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Inside the same stadium where he has scored some marvellous goals and been involved in classic counter-attacking moves down the years, he was anonymous. The match simply passed him by.

A week earlier, he played reasonably well against Sunderland, scoring his first Premier League goal of the season and making some trademark bursts forward with the ball. That game was the outlier in the context of his season, though.

Against Aston Villa in August, he put in what was arguably the worst display of his decade-long spell at United. His first touch was clumsy, his passing was wayward and his presence as the focal point of the attack failed to inspire.

Rooney’s total of five goals in 11 appearances so far is, at least on the face of it, a respectable return. Yet those goals have come in games against Club Brugge, Ipswich Town and Sunderland.

Against opposition of any calibre this season, his performances have been typified by a lethargy and weariness that has left him on the fringes of too many games.

Credit: @ManUtdMEN
Credit: @ManUtdMEN /

For Rooney, one of two things has to happen now. Either he reinvents himself in the same way that Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes both did, or United must begin to think about replacing him.

The chance of the former happening appears remote at this moment. After spending much of last season in midfield, it was clear that Rooney lacked the first touch, close control and passing ability required to play in the deeper position that many people thought he would be ideally suited for in the latter stages of his career.

And with Anthony Martial thriving as a No. 9 and injecting some life into the attack, there’s simply no way that Rooney can return to his role as a striker. By the same token, it would be foolish to continue playing him as a No. 10 based on his form.

The end result is that, in the current 4-2-3-1 system favoured by Van Gaal, Rooney doesn’t offer a great deal in any one role. What seems like versatility is in fact an inability to convince as a striker, No. 10 or midfielder.

When United visit Everton after the international break, if all players are fit and available, it would be difficult to justify Rooney’s place in the starting XI.

Credit: @TeleFootball
Credit: @TeleFootball /

United’s start to the season has been decidedly mixed. The highs of beating Liverpool and Wolfsburg have been contrasted by the low defeats to Swansea, PSV Eindhoven and Arsenal. Rooney’s sluggishness has sadly been one of the few constants.

It has reached the point now where change is needed. In the short term, he either improves considerably or Van Gaal has to drop him, even for a brief spell.

The long-term implications of his physical deterioration remain unclear. It’s still too early to know whether Rooney has the capacity to adapt his game as he gets older. But what is certain is that he is in decline rather than merely suffering a dip in form.

At the start of the 2015/16 campaign, Rooney’s performances in a United shirt suggest a critical point in his career is fast approaching. Can he adjust to a new role and manage his physical decline, or is this the beginning of the end for him at United? Either way, something has to give.

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