Wayne Rooney and Jose Mourinho were on different pages during the summer. After playing in midfield for Louis van Gaal, and then for England at Euro 2016, the Manchester United captain said he had “known for years” he would eventually end up in that position. Mourinho, though, didn’t agree.
“Maybe he is not a No. 9 anymore, but he will never, with me, be a No. 6,” Mourinho said at his first news conference as United manager in July. “He will never be 50 metres from the goal. For me, he will be a No. 9 or a No. 10, or a number nine-and-a-half, but with me he will never be a No. 6, not even a No. 8.”
Yet that could be about to change. United’s injury crisis has ruled out seven players for Swansea’s visit to Old Trafford on Sunday. It has cost Mourinho two midfielders, in Paul Pogba and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, and a third, Marouane Fellaini, is suspended following his moment of madness in headbutting Sergio Aguero during the midweek derby with Manchester City.
On Thursday night, as Mourinho surveyed what was left of his squad, he was forced to concede that Rooney could play in midfield this weekend.
“Yes, he’s an option,” he said at his news conference following the 0-0 draw. “We don’t have [any other players there]. We have [Ander] Herrera and [Michael] Carrick and nothing else. And Tim Fosu-Mensah, an emergency to help the team, strong legs, energy, he’s another one that we will miss, so we are in trouble.”
Rooney’s last appearance in United’s midfield was a positive one. His display in the win over Crystal Palace in last season’s FA Cup final was not one of the highest quality, but the fight and desire he had in abundance when he was 16 appeared to be back.
His run into the penalty area, beating six men before crossing for Juan Mata to score the equaliser, came at a time when United seemed to be running out of ideas.
Not long afterward, he was holding up the trophy. Jesse Lingard stole the headlines after his spectacular winner in extra time, but the result had everything to do with Rooney’s determination to drag United over the line.
They could do with a bit of that now. Mourinho’s team have five Premier League games left to get into the top four. And with only 13 senior outfield players available, and trips to Arsenal and Tottenham to come, they are facing an uphill battle.
Rooney could have an important part to play simply because he’s fit. Having only started five games in 2017, he should be fresh, too.
A few good games in midfield between now and the end of the season may convince Mourinho he was wrong to discard the idea so quickly in the summer. But it is unlikely to prolong Rooney’s United career. At 31, he will want to play regularly, and that ship appears to have sailed under Mourinho — especially with the prospect of more big-name signings to come before next season.
However, Rooney could still help United into the top four and lift the Europa League trophy in Stockholm next month. United’s top scorer of all time might get the send-off his record-breaking career deserves after all … just not from the position Mourinho had envisioned.