Jose Mourinho’s mood was soured in the build-up to Thursday’s Europa League game with Zorya Luhansk, riling against his backroom staff for an ill-prepared report on his Ukrainian opponents- Luhansk’s manager had pointed out Manchester United had scouted them so it shouldn’t have been a surprise they changed system- and by the end his outlook was just as tetchy.
The next on Mourinho’s list of irritations was a fixture computer that has United travelling to Liverpool 3 days before they host Fenerbahce and it was hard to escape the feeling, on a night his team produced a stodgy 1-0 defeat of Zorya, the Portuguese wasn’t going to be coaxed out of his vexed mood.
If his manager wasn’t feeling it then his captain reportedly was. Wayne Rooney, Mourinho said, was laughing at his mistimed volley that registered an inadvertent assist for Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s headed winner and the coach was happy to lavish praise.
“He gave me what the team needs at that time, a second presence in the box,” he said, “he’s more a striker than a one and one went more to the right side.”
If it is difficult to understand the last part of Mourinho’s sentence then it probably explains why Rooney was starting from the bench for the second time in a week.
Mourinho said Rooney was “my man, I trust him completely” after he was dropped for the game with Leicester, in which United produced a rampant display to win 4-1, and it was the attacking fluidity shown in that game which has the captain currently on the periphery.
Bringing back cohesiveness
Mourinho is trying to produce the cohesiveness that was missing in the trio of defeats to Manchester City, Feyenoord and Watford and he is aware that with Rooney, whom he tried to shuffle into the team in midfield, against his own wisdom, in the 3-1 loss at Vicarage Road, it is hard to achieve.
He is a player, as Mourinho acknowledged on Thursday, who likes to skate around and drop deep, often congesting play in the final third and with Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata and Paul Pogba devastatingly in-tune with each other against Leicester, the decision to leave him on the bench was justified.
Pogba looked especially liberated in Rooney’s absence against the champions, dictating the game from his midfield station with clever touches and incisive passes to win the man of the match award.
The Frenchman also got his first goal since his world record move to Old Trafford, one of three goals United scored from corners.
It was hard to get drawn up on their set-piece threat though with Mata’s strike coming from a move in which, tellingly with Rooney watching on, all of United’s outfield players touched the ball in a slick move.
There was no such fluidity on Thursday evening however despite Rooney still sitting on the side-lines.
Rooney still could be of use
One couldn’t help but feel, as United toiled in attempting to break Zorya down, that Mourinho could have done with Rooney’s vision and subtlety in the final third.
Or at least a case could have been made for the inclusion of Michael Carrick’s intelligence in possession as Marouane Fellaini slowed proceedings down to the point of agony in United’s flat midfield.
There is still a lingering perception that Mourinho is yet to discover the right balance going forward and is no closer to settling on his midfield personnel, with only Pogba so far certain of his spot.
He may be starting to find the right role for Rooney, although his contribution on Thursday evening was accidental.
“Wayne gave us different positions and speed when the opposing team was getting tired,” said the Portuguese.
United’s tempo certainly improved once Rooney emerged from the bench with 25 minutes remaining as Jesse Lingard and Pogba both struggled to cut through Zorya’s resolute organisation.
Although there was the over-hit pass that stretched to Rashford and ended United’s swift counter-attack and Ibrahimovic’s clear disdain for Rooney’s lack of pressing that served to highlight the issues that are blighting the captain’s current game.
Too much game-time
It is evident that regular game-time at the highest level with a body that has not been looked after, say for example in the same way as Ibrahimovic’s, has left the 30 year old searching to reinvent himself for a game that gets ever-intensified.
Hence his retrogression into midfield, a position he is ill-suited to given his penchant for over-hit “Hollywood” balls and a distinct lack of mobility.
It is now important that Mourinho now finds the correct role for his captain to play, even if it means late impact cameos from the bench, as Pogba indicated last Saturday just how effective he can be if he is given space to perform in a freer role.
Playing the captain alongside Ibrahimovic in a front two with a combined age of 66 reduces movement in attack while moving Rooney deeper into midfield stifles creation and clogs up the arteries of United’s play.
The defeat to Watford showed that but the last two results, as Mourinho seeks consistency, will have given a brighter outlook.
Rooney was on the bench for both of those wins, keeping him there may be the key to improving Mourinho’s mood.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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