Rooney makes a mess of midfield

Mourinho needs to get balance right after his striker fails in role as a deep-lying playmaker

LONDON • Jose Mourinho had to wait a long time to fulfil his ambition of becoming manager of Manchester United and now that he is at Old Trafford, he still needs more patience.

From himself, firstly, as his fall at Chelsea last season suggests there is a risk of him unravelling if he allows himself to become too frustrated by the inadequacies he has inherited at United.

He was calm as he explained after the 3-1 defeat by Watford on Sunday that, when he took the job, "I was completely aware that we are not perfect, with lots of players who are not end products and can make their own mistakes".

But the most incriminating aspect of United's start as far as Mourinho is concerned is not inconsistency from young players but a lack of clarity from a seasoned manager.

At his very first press conference in July, the Portuguese had made a point of saying he wanted specialists in every position.

And yet at Watford, for a Premier League game laden with added significance on the back of defeats by Manchester City and Feyenoord, he had no specialists between defence and attack.

His whole midfield was a muddle. And that was largely - though not exclusively - because Wayne Rooney assumed exactly the role that Mourinho insisted the England player would not be given, the deep-lying playmaker with licence to dictate the tempo of play. A slow, ponderous tempo.

"You can tell me his pass is amazing but my pass is also amazing without pressure," Mourinho scoffed in July. Yet, in September, he seemingly, like England managers Roy Hodgson and Sam Allardyce, is allowing his team to be disrupted by a diminished Rooney.

Rooney sprayed a couple of good long passes when he found enough space to be without pressure but mostly his passes were notable only for their banality or for their inaccuracy.

It was hard to understand why he was selected ahead of Michael Carrick, Morgan Schneiderlin or Daley Blind, all three of whom are still closer than Rooney to being zippy specialists in the role.

When Anthony Martial needed treatment for a head injury in the 27th minute, Rooney discussed tactics with Mourinho. And throughout the entire match he offered unsolicited advice to the referee, Michael Oliver.

The overall impression was of a player whose role now can best be described as midfield lobbyist.

From a poor selection, Marouane Fellaini was United's most inventive central midfielder, although the Belgian seemed to have been assigned holding duty, which tends to default to him on the grounds that he is big rather than exceptionally vigilant.

As for the wide midfielders, none have been truly convincing so far under Mourinho.

Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have not made compelling cases for inclusion.

Nor has the out-of-form Anthony Martial, with whom Mourinho nonetheless persisted at Watford.

And the world's most expensive player in all of this? Paul Pogba struggled to make himself relevant.

The balance is not right at United at the moment.

To get it right will take time, and the clarity of thought to recognise that Rooney's time in midfield is up.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2016, with the headline 'Rooney makes a mess of midfield'. Print Edition | Subscribe