The insouciant shrug of the shoulders, a look of frustration, a sharp word with the referee; a new season, same old Wayne Rooney. Except that the striker’s moments of petulance on Saturday came in duplicate, following each of the goals that he helped to create, as Manchester United scored victory on the opening day of the new campaign.
Rooney’s return was in extract the essence of David Moyes’ dilemma this summer: retain Rooney, whatever the player’s mental breach, or dispatch a player who can create with such devastating effect.
Yet, there remains something unseemly about Rooney’s presence in Red; a player no longer in love with the club, if ever he was, and quite possibly in decline.
Perhaps it is the memory of George Best’s final days in Manchester, perhaps more ephemeral than that, but Rooney barely looked fit – an unkempt beard adding to the appearance of a player whose finest moments are now well in the past.
With barely a game in aggregate over the pre-season period Rooney’s limited match sharpness is forgivable; the lack of application certainly isn’t.
And yet, whatever the Scouser’s dramas this summer, the 27-year-old still managed a hand in two goals at the Liberty Stadium, first for Robin van Persie and then Danny Welbeck. The talent is probably undiminished even if the physical prowess is degenerating fast.
If Rooney’s presence was a distraction then it is perhaps fortunate that United’s four goals in south Wales will focus supporters’ minds on those whose star is in the ascendancy at Old Trafford: van Persie and Welbeck.
Indeed, the pair scored three stunning strikes against Michael Laudrup’s outfit despite United spending large portions of the match on the back foot. Swansea, superbly neat in possession, will retain the ball against many teams this season, but it was United’s high-quality finishing that secured victory in Moyes’ first Premier League match in charge.
van Persie’s first was a microcosm of the Dutchman’s year at United. Dragging Ryan Giggs’ lofted pass out of the air, van Persie turned and gleefully smashed a right-footed volley into the top corner of the Swan’s net to put United ahead.
Welbeck added a second from short-range, before the Dutchman’s second – a smart turn from right to left and a quite stunning strike into Michel Vorm’s top corner. Class: the Dutchman has bags of it.
But Welbeck held back the best to last, with the England international taking Rooney’s slide-rule pass and beating Vorm with a delicately lofted finish. There was more than a touch of Eric Cantona in the goal’s majestic simplicity – an observation that mocks both Welbeck’s many detractors and the player’s record of just one goal in the Premier League last season.
“Danny’s got a bigger total already,” said Moyes in the aftermath.
“Unfortunately, I think his goal against Scotland might have helped lift his confidence. I was more pleased with his first goal here because I think if you’re a centre-forward you’ve got to get tap-ins.”
“I thought we were incisive, our finishing was fantastic. It was a brilliant performance against a Swansea team who I believe will do very well this season.”
Welbeck will surely improve on that goalscoring record in the months ahead, although Moyes’ decision to deploy the 22-year-old in a deeper role against both Swansea on Saturday and Wigan Athletic in the Community Shield is counter-intuitive to the forecast.
Yet, Moyes’ choice affords Welbeck far more opportunities to drift late into scoring areas than Sir Alex Ferguson’s deployment of the striker to the left wing. Joy, then, when Welbeck sealed United’s victory; for both player and travelling supporters drenched in the south Wales downpour.
By contrast any joy at Rooney’s 30 minute cameo was forced. True, Rooney had a significant impact, finding passes for both van Persie’s second and Welbeck’s final flourish. Yet, the former Evertonian cut a lonely presence, ignoring his teammates’ celebrations – mirroring every former frustrated fading star.
United supporters remain on the fence – yet to publicly voice the inner anger many have expressed in media away from the stadium. The player, warming up before a second-half appearance, was even greeted with a burst of song from a group of United’s supporters, although the Rooney’s entrance brought mixed warmth.
Still, Moyes remained fulsome in praise for the striker, whom he insists will not leave before the transfer window closes in around a fortnight’s time.
“Wayne did well when he came on, he made a great run which opened up the chance for Robin to go on to his left foot for our third goal, and also the ball he slipped through for Welbeck’s second was weighted lovely, so he helped the team and played a part in getting the result,” said Moyes.
“The supporters recognise good players at Manchester United and I think they recognised that when Wayne came on. He got quite a bad kick down the back of his achilles, he’s still lacking match fitness, but another 30 minutes today will bring him on. I thought when he went on he was incredibly committed.”
The question of whether Rooney is deployed from the start against Chelsea next weekend is likely to garner more headlines in the coming week. After all, Rooney’s prospective employers in west London have failed with three official bids for a player who is seemingly desperate to secure the move south.
Conflict of interest? Not half.
For the moment, though, the glory is all van Persie’s. And Welbeck’s. And a little bit Moyes’.
After all, the Dutchman has embraced United in a manner to which Rooney is seemingly incapable. Welbeck, a United player for more than a decade, is as desperate to succeed as the supporters are for him to achieve that dream.
More pragmatically van Persie’s goals, Welbeck’s growing excellence and potentially Shinji Kagawa’s talent may negate any damage from Rooney’s physical decline. That remains true whether the errant forward stays in Manchester or not.