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You can see the logic in Louis van Gaal bestowing the captain’s armband upon Wayne Rooney. Taking charge of a club of United’s stature, the Dutchman would have wanted a man he could trust that knows the club inside-out. Wayne Rooney recently signed a bumper contract tying him to the club until 2019 and, following some high-profile departures in the summer, the England international is now the longest-serving player in the squad. Rooney is currently third on Manchester United’s all-time top goalscorers list, thirty shy of the number one spot. Consider his experience, natural desire to win and undoubted quality and it is easy to see how he fits the bill for a strong captain.
However, van Gaal may have put his foot in it when he stated that his captain is the only player assured of a place in the starting eleven.
As 18-year-old striker James Wilson made his first appearance of the season coming on for Radamel Falcao in the 78th minute of United’s 2-1 win over Everton, he became the thirtieth player to represent the Red Devils this season after just seven matches. Injuries have played a role in this; United have found themselves with up to nine first team competitors sidelined thanks in part to van Gaal’s ruthless training regime. Regardless, it is clear that the manager is not afraid to shake things up, from his initial 3-5-2 formation to the blooding of young talent in Tyler Blackett, Paddy McNair, Jesse Lingard and the aforementioned Wilson.
With so much chopping and changing, it is essential that the few ever-presents in the squad truly deserve their places. David de Gea is one that has been singled out by van Gaal as a permanent resident in the starting eleven, and with good reason; the shot-stopper weathered a shaky start to his United career to emerge as one of the top few young goalkeepers in world football today. His declaration that the captain will always play, however, is slightly more questionable.
“There are, always in a team, players who you put in a line-up” said van Gaal. “My captain shall always play and normally a goalkeeper also so that is not a surprise.” What may come as a surprise, however, is that Wayne Rooney has been guaranteed a starting place over Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao. The manager is clearly very happy with his front three having loaned Xavier Hernandez to Real Madrid and controversially sold 23-year-old Danny Welbeck to rivals Arsenal. All three strikers are arguably world-class, so why has van Gaal fenced himself into starting Rooney when he could have simply remained non-committal on the subject?
Much has been made about Robin van Persie’s age, with some believing that United should cash in on the ex-Arsenal star before it is too late. However, there is little evidence to suggest that the Dutchman’s age is hampering his game. In the last three seasons van Persie has lifted the Golden Boot twice – once for Arsenal and once for United. In the third and most recent season which saw United finish an unprecedented seventh, van Persie averaged more than one goal every two games despite being in and out of the team. In the summer, the striker made headlines for his superman-esque flying headed goal against Spain – an action which sparked playful imitations in an internet phenomenon – as the Netherlands finished third under van Gaal. Looking at the facts, there is little argument for dropping van Persie.
Deadline day has become synonymous with outrageous last minute deals and this summer’s was no different. The story stealing all the headlines was the unexpected move of Radamel Falcao from AS Monaco to Manchester United. Seemingly materialising overnight, the unexpected capture of the Colombian on loan was met with a mixed reception from the Old Trafford contingent. His quality was never in doubt but the loan deal cost £6 million plus £350,000 a week wages on top of a potential £43.5 million, should the move be made permanent. A number of fans felt that his signing was an unnecessary luxury given the strikers already at the club, and that this money would have been better spent on defensive reinforcements.
Regardless, with the deal completed, Falcao must play. His record in Europe is remarkable. After moving to Porto in 2009 he notched 72 goals in 87 games then moved to Atletico Madrid in a £35 million switch. He enjoyed a similar tally with 70 goals in 91 games, then made the £51 million transfer to AS Monaco in the summer of 2013. Over two injury-plagued seasons he still managed 13 goals in 22 games leaving his predatory pedigree in no doubt. To omit him from the team when fit – especially considering both his wages and the £6 million yearlong price tag – is unthinkable.
So where does that leave Wayne Rooney? Many have suggested that his ideal place is just behind the front two, helping to carve out chances in the classic number 10 role. This in itself presents a new problem, however, with Juan Mata best utilised in that position. A recent analysis of Mata’s United performances showed a remarkable difference in his performances out wide and through the middle of the park. In seven games out wide, Mata registered no goals with two assists. Played centrally over ten games, Mata again got two assists but this time bagged an impressive seven goals, averaging nearly one goal or assist per game. Unless Manchester United intend to waste their £37 million signing playing him out of position as they often did with misfit Shinji Kagawa, Mata must be the one to fill in behind the front two.
Which leaves us with the conundrum, where exactly does Wayne Rooney fit in? Ordinarily he could alternate between striker, playmaker and, when necessary, starting from a wide position. However, van Gaal’s hard line on Rooney being undroppable has created an unnecessary problem.If it comes to fruition, it may well upset one or two key players and the team will suffer.