Mourinho’s dilemma: What to do with Rooney

Jose Mourinho is facing the biggest question of his short reign as Manchester United manager: What to do with Wayne Rooney?

Waryne Rooney.

While most of United’s top players were benched or rested entirely for the English League game against third—tier Northampton on Wednesday, Rooney played the full 90 minutes less than three days before a big Premier League match against champion Leicester.

There could be two explanations for this selection: Mourinho either wanted his captain out on the field to lead the team in a potentially tricky away cup tie; or there’s a chance Rooney could be left out at the weekend.

In a terse television interview before the Northampton game, Mourinho was twice asked what he wanted from Rooney.

“Goals,” came the reply from the stern-faced Portuguese coach, both times.

United won 3-1 but Rooney, who started the match as a central striker before dropping deeper in the second half, did not score.

The Rooney dilemma where to play him, if at all is hanging over Mourinho and won’t go away, because it’s the most hotly debated issue in English football at present.

Rooney was restored to his favoured No 10 position by Mourinho for this season, after finishing last season as a central midfielder for United and England’s national team.

But it remains questionable if he is doing enough to justify his place, and if this positional switch might be stifling the effectiveness of world—record signing Paul Pogba and new star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Pogba is being played as one of two deep-lying players in central midfield, with Rooney ahead of him, even though the France international is better suited in a three—man midfield that allows him more freedom to attack and not be overly concerned with his defensive responsibilities similar to how he played at Juventus.

It seems strange to spend $116 million on a player and not adapt the team to his strengths.

Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, is a centre forward who likes to roam where he wants, and he enjoyed huge tactical freedom at Paris Saint-Germain, his former club.

But his tendency to improvise on a whim can also unbalance teams. For example, if Ibrahimovic is dropping deep to get more involved in play then that space is already being occupied by Rooney.

Given the presence of Pogba and Ibrahimovic, a 4-3-3 formation with no authentic No. 10 could be the way forward for United.

Rooney, who has been at United since 2004, has had his moments this season, notably setting up Marcus Rashford for a last-minute winner at Hull and also supplying a brilliant right-wing cross that Ibrahimovic headed home in a victory against Southampton.

He still has an excellent football brain, a good range of passing, and an exemplary work rate. Critics, though, argue Rooney has lost his pace and explosiveness, and therefore is slowing down United’s attacking tempo. He had a particularly disappointing game in United’s 3—1 loss at Watford on Sunday, its third defeat in a row over nine days.