By Matthew Galea
No position has muddled Manchester United as much as the fabled number 10.
The link between midfield and attack, the attacking midfielder has become increasingly important as football made the transition from two-man midfield to three at the expense of playing two out-and-out strikers.
United undoubtedly dominated the early Premier League era of 4-4-2 football, where the brilliance of all-round midfielders like Roy Keane and Paul Scholes meant that two men could do the work that three do today, but the transition to 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 or whatever is in vogue at any given time has proven somewhat difficult for the club.
Sir Alex Ferguson fought it, but even he was forced to change his ways – with some success – in the years that followed the Champions League triumph in 2007-08.
The number of strikers on the field rarely changed – Ferguson almost always had two out-and-out strikers on the field at the start of any given game – but their roles changed.
Wayne Rooney moved out of his preferred number nine and into a deeper role behind any one of Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernandez, Robin Van Persie, Falcao and now Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the expense of goals and – now as he continues to age – general effectiveness.
His selection in that position has largely persisted despite the emergence and acquisition of many players more suited to the role.
Shinji Kagawa was perhaps the first “specialist” number 10 United brought in and since, Adnan Januzaj emerged with plenty of promise, Juan Mata was acquired for a then club-record fee under David Moyes and Jose Mourinho has bought in Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan who are also suited to the role.
Rooney’s importance to the club – both as a player who has genuinely delivered for many seasons and as a player of undoubted talent – coupled with the constant influx of new senior strikers acquired at great cost and his own massive salary meant United’s managers have had little choice but to play him as United’s main number 10.
In many ways, his versatility and ability to adapt – as he had to at many times to accomodate Cristiano Ronaldo and others during some of United’s best seasons – to any number of roles has hurt him.
That said, Rooney has had a number of good seasons in that role and he has been able to win United games and big occasions from there – see last season’s FA Cup final – but there is no doubting that his best position has always been as a striker. He proved that much most recently under Louis van Gaal when the continued failure of Van Persie and Falcao to score the required goals saw Rooney move back up front and almost instantly get among the goals which helped United to seal a return to Champions League football.
Yet, almost as soon as United had got there, he found himself back in a number 10 with Mata – a player who is clearly better at the role – asked to play on the wing (albeit with plenty of success).
The overcomplication of Rooney and his role as United captain has muddied the water but finally, United management might be starting to see clearly.
Mourinho was always going to give Rooney first crack at the number 10 slot this season.
After all, Rooney is captain, United’s highest-paid player and he finished last season on a good note in the FA Cup.
To Rooney’s credit, he started the season well enough, even if only statistically. He scored in the season opener at Bournemouth and was for the most part good in United’s opening three games of the campaign.
Since the international break, however, he has been anything but and that loss of form was duly recognised by Mourinho after two-straight poor Premier League performances.
In his place, Mata was brilliant.
Unlike Rooney, Mata’s off-the-ball intelligence made him a nightmare for the Leicester City defence as his movement contiuously pulled their defensive midfielders and central defenders out of position to create space for the likes of Pogba and Ander Herrera coming from deeper positions.
Rooney’s hunger to get on the ball as much as possible and seemingly be involved in every attacking move often leads to a closure of space for United rather than an expansion of it, something Mata was able to achieve brilliantly with his smart movement between the lines of Leicester’s defence and midfield.
When he did get involved in play, his output was first class – as demonstrated in his goal in which he started and finished – albeit after some brilliance from Pogba – the move.
Now, finally, balance has seemingly been restored.
Despite his status as captain and his wages, Rooney – like everyone else – will have to play his way back into Mourinho’s first-choice Premier League XI.
And he deserves the chance to do so, such has his service been to the club.
Rooney can still be an important member of the squad, but his performances will now determine his role instead of his status.
At the same time, Mourinho has also seemingly helped United to finally make some sense of the number 10 position and the players who should occupy it.