Could it be the day that José Mourinho finally makes the big selection decision on everybody’s mind? The one involving captain Wayne Rooney and the bench. After all, Rooney’s performances this season, for the last three, have suggested a once great player on the wane. That burst of speed, surety of touch, and goalscoring prowess: all gone. His value to the team: vastly diminished.
Leicester City’s visit to Old Trafford might provide the first evidence of Rooney’s diminished importance to the new manager as well, although Antony Martial’s injury could leave space for the England striker on the left. After a challenging fortnight, in which Mourinho’s team lost three games and limped past Northampton Town, Mourinho has ample reason to change up his approach.
The Portuguese has only once lost three leagues game in succession. No time, then, to pull back from making the big calls. And even if Rooney squeezes into the team, it says much that there are few left to defend Rooney’s performances save from his clutch of fan-boys and former team-mates in the media.
Rooney leaves Mourinho with both a tactical and personnel challenge. The Scouser’s role at 10 as inhibited world-record acquisition Paul Pogba, while Mourinho’s use of a 4-2-3-1 system appears designed to accommodate Rooney above all. Both could go this Saturday.
Still, Mourinho is not yet ready to publicly ditch his captain, although it is widely understood that Rooney’s position is finally under threat.
“Wayne is the captain of the club, the manager and the players. He is trusted by the players, he is trusted by myself and he represents the club in a fantastic way as a player and person and what is now socially.
“Football is a different story. Football, everyone is the same and if he has to go on the bench, he goes on the bench; if he has to stay at home, he stays at home. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t trust him or you have a problem. Not at all. We have no problems. He is our captain, but of course, no privilege – he is like anyone else.”
That has not always been the case in recent years, where David Moyes and Louis van Gaal stoked Rooney’s sense of entitlement despite a progressively reducing contribution in the three seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. The pattern has continued this season, with Rooney scoring just twice as United faltered.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Could it be the day that José Mourinho finally makes the big selection decision to bench captain Wayne Rooney? After all, Rooney’s performances this season, for the last three, have suggested a once great player on the wane.[/blockquote]
The fixture is important to the team as whole though, even if Rooney is the dominant narrative in the build-up. Now six points behind Manchester City, Mourinho is struggling to show that his team is a credible challenger this season despite significant investment over the summer. Much has changed at Old Trafford since Van Gaal’s dismissal, except for the inconsistent performances.
Meanwhile, Claudio Ranieri’s champions have enjoyed a mixed start to the campaign, suffering heavy losses to Liverpool in the Premier League and to Chelsea in the League Cup. The season started off with an embarrassing defeat against Mick Phelan’s Hull City. In between Leicester has picked up enough points to lie mid-table, although talk of retaining the title has ebbed. With others, particularly City, United and Chelsea investing heavily this summer, it was never a realistic possibility.
“They won the Premier League because some of the big teams were not good enough last season, but they won because they were very good and they are still very good,” said Mourinho.
“Their defensive process is clear, their attacking organisation is very easy to understand, too, but it is very difficult to cope with it. It is very difficult to keep a clean sheet against a team like Leicester and it is difficult to score goals against a team like Leicester.”
Little has changed in Leicester’s approach, although N’Golo Kante’s loss to Chelsea has proven to be the significant blown many thought it would be. The Foxes have brought in new faces, including Islam Slimani and Ahmed Musa, although it is in central midfield where the Champions sometimes now get overrun.
Still, there is no fear as Leicester arrives for Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off. United’s performances in recent weeks shouldn’t provoke any either.
“We are fearless,” said Ranieri. Why are we scared to go there? More than lose, what can we do there? “I enjoy – 70,000 people is amazing, fantastic. I don’t want to go when there is just you and me to play. It is a very bad show. When you go in this big stadium you want to show your best.”
United subs from: Romero, Darmian, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe, Rojo, Schneiderlin, Depay, Lingard, Young, Herrera, Mkhitaryan
Leicester subs from: Hamer, Chilwell, Hernández, Amartey, Gray, Kapustka, Schlupp, Ulloa, Musa, Okazaki
All eyes on the team-sheet for Rooney’s name. The blame for the Scouser’s performances? England’s, apparently.
“I think there was a Wayne before the Slovakia-England and a Wayne after the Slovakia-England,” Mourinho said. “I am blaming the people that after England-Slovakia were, in my opinion, too strong with somebody that is a very important player in the history of English football. I think it was too much.”
Mourinho is expected to retain the 4-3-3 system that he has dabbled with in recent weeks, with Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini joined by the reassuring presence of Michael Carrick in central midfield. The trio should both liberate the Frenchman and provide extra cover to a defence that has looked far from certain in recent games.
At the back Luke Shaw faces a late fitness test, but should make the team after recovering both from injury and Mourinho’s stinging criticism. Phil Jones is definitely out, leaving Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and Daley Blind to compete for two places in central defence. Antonio Valencia, also criticised by Mourinho this season, starts on the right despite his good start to the campaign unravelling over the past fortnight.
But it is attacking areas that hold the most intrigue. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is fit after recovering from a minor groin injury, although he is more likely to start on the bench after a difficult first few weeks in Manchester. Martial is definitely out with an ankle problem, potentially leaving Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford and Rooney to compete for two spots in wide areas.
Referee: Stuart Attwell
Assistants: S Child, M Perry
Fourth Official: A Marriner
United 2-1 Leicester