The Trail of William Prunier

As featured on Pundit Arena

wordpress122

Despite Eric Bailly’s impressive early season performances, the jury remains out on the ability of Manchester United’s defence to back up the challenge that will undoubtedly be posed by their potent strike force. One need only reference Eliaquim Mangala at the Etihad to understand that expensive defenders do not guarantee security.

20 years ago however, United were in a much more precarious position. With a backline comprising entirely of English and Irishmen, it was a 28-year-old Frenchman to whom they turned.

It is the ambition of a great many fellows to be summoned to Old Trafford; William Prunier was – and departed not long after.

It’s not an altogether strange occurrence; many youngsters earn and waste their opportunity. However, the misadventure of Mr. Prunier is one of the most fascinating of all during Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure at the club.

It concerns New Year’s Day some years ago when I sought exile from the festivities to watch Manchester United take on Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane.

It was a time when new signings captured the imagination. Rather than following online updates on any impending transfer, fans were forced to rely upon page 222 on Aertel, wait for the morning papers or call one of those dodgy 1800 numbers to get the latest news (the folks still don’t believe me).

1995/96 was a rather depressing time for United fans. With Blackburn Rovers having clinched the title, everyone expected a significant response from Ferguson. Instead he cashed in on some of his prized assets with Andrei Kanchelskis, Paul Ince and Mark Hughes all departing the club. Raimond van der Gouw was the only meaningful addition to a squad that closely resembled a nursery.

But as the busy Christmas period approached that season, it appeared that Ferguson’s lack of activity in the transfer market had finally come back to haunt him. Despite a rich vein of form, United were several points adrift of Newcastle United while Steve Bruce, their stalwart captain, lay prone on the treatment table with Gary Pallister and David May on either side.

So it was with some relief when teletext informed us of an imminent debut for a new player at Old Trafford.

In latter years, Laurent Blanc and Rio Ferdinand evidenced Ferguson’s fondness for cultured centre-halves. Yet the Scot first experimented with a ball-playing defender in December 1995 when William Prunier was invited to Manchester. Having come through Auxerre’s famed academy at the same time, Eric Cantona was an advocate of his compatriot.

wordpress124

Ferguson conveyed some interest but hesitated on the offer of a contract. Prunier would have to prove his worth behind the scenes on a trial basis. That all changed when Denis Irwin joined the list of absentees within days of the Frenchman’s arrival. Ferguson was left with little option other than to thrust Prunier into the heart of United’s defence for an upcoming clash with QPR.

Alongside Gary Neville, who at 21 was United’s most experienced defender, Prunier showed glimpses of the quality that had earned him an international cap for France a few years previously. United kept up the heat on Kevin Keegan’s rampant Magpies with a 2-1 win. In so doing, Prunier became somewhat of a cult hero on the Stretford End, setting up a goal and rattling the crossbar with a thunderous drive.

The Independent swooned that Prunier had become an “instant hero of the Old Trafford hordes on a debut when he was in the mood to storm the Bastille.” Ferguson was a little less enthused: “We will see how he [Prunier] defends away from home. There is always that thing about European defenders and how quickly they can pick up the pace.”

Lo and behold Prunier was back for the next match against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane live on TV. Having negotiated my way out of the family dinner to cast my eye over this welcome addition, I sat back with the last of the Christmas pudding. Reality soon dawned.

Despite a hefty £4.5 million price-tag, Chris Armstrong was not the most feared striker in the Premier League when he moved across London from Crystal Palace. Yet on this particular evening, Prunier had the Spurs faithful drawing comparisons between Armstrong and his great predecessor, Jürgen Klinsmann. Having galloped into the Theatre of Dreams, Prunier was now like a cowboy who had lost his horse. By full-time, his obituary was going to press.

wordpress123

Before Prunier arrived in Manchester he had enjoyed a decent career. Having come through the ranks at Auxerre, he progressed into the first team amassing 221 appearances and many plaudits. Olympique de Marseilles, following their triumph in the newly-formatted Champions League, were soon batting their eyelids at the defender as they sought to solidify their status as one of Europe’s premier clubs. With a heavy heart, Prunier reciprocated their advances. However, amidst match-fixing scandals and financial irregularities, Ligue 2 beckoned and Prunier promptly sought the exit door.

By 1994 Prunier was a much-respected centre-half in the French game and many took pity on him for the unfortunate situation into which he had been landed. There were a number of suitors, not least Bordeaux, who were becoming a force to be reckoned with as Zinedine Zidane, Bixente Lizarazu and Christophe Dugarry led the charge.

It represented a sensible move for Prunier. But in time, the Frenchman began to lose his patience with his bit-part role to the point where he felt he had no option but to buy out the remainder of his contract. The timing could not have been better (or worse).

Prunier never appeared again for United. Having been cast as the scapegoat in the aftermath of a disappointing 4-1 defeat (United’s worst league defeat in four years), Ferguson invited Prunier to extend his trial period, proposing that, given his lack of English, a little more time would help him to adapt to the United way. In truth, Ferguson’s olive branch was out of concern for the individual rather than his potential to play for United. Indeed, in more recent years, Ferguson has admitted that he too was subject to errors of judgment, citing Prunier, Ralph Milne, Kléberson and Eric Djemba-Djemba amongst his most notorious.

Prunier’s agent, Alain Migliasclio, did not agree (via The Irish Times):

“Manchester United were due to give us a definite answer but they offered William another trial period. With more than 350 French first division appearances and 35 European matches under his belt, William is no longer an apprentice.”

Prunier returned to France before opting for a switch to FC Copenhagen instead.

Clearly angered, Migliasclio felt that his client had been hard done by. Ferguson’s patched-up team had their chances and were the better side for much of the opening stages. But with the game level at half time, the forced removal of Peter Schmeichel became the predominant nail in United’s coffin. Kevin Pilkington, his young understudy, was simply not up to the task. Yet it was Prunier, the lad nobody knew or could speak to, that became the fall guy.

In the dressing room, Prunier’s temporary teammates appreciated his contribution, many sympathising with the timing of his arrival. To arrive at a big club to train with the reserves is one thing. But to lead a Premier League defence without a word of English is quite another. They would never see Prunier again.

In the years that followed his trial at The Cliff, Prunier became somewhat of a journeyman. After an eleven-game spell in Copenhagen, the likes of Montpellier, Napoli, Hearts and Kortrijk in Belgium were all graced with his presence, albeit briefly, before he arrived in Toulouse in 1999. For five seasons, Prunier went some way to redeeming a flagging career as the club bounced between divisions, peaking in 2002/03 when he was named in Ligue 1’s Team of the Year. He ended his playing career with Al-Siliya in Qatar in 2004.

A spell in management followed therafter, firstly as assistant to Stéphane Paille at AS Cannes until their dismissal a few months later. He managed local sides in the Toulouse area for a period including a three-year stint with US Colomiers, before moving onto GS Consolat – an amateur side based in Marseilles for a further year. In 2015, Prunier became the reserve team coach at Ligue 1 side Montpellier HSC, where he made 27 appearances in 1996/97. He remains there today.

JMMAR20150822

GRAMMONT FOOT CFA 2 / MHSC II / VILLENAVE ENTRAINEUR PRUNIER

Sadly, Prunier’s reputation never truly recovered from his two-week stay in Salford and it precedes him at every opportunity.

And yet for the title of most obscure player to have appeared for the Red Devils, Prunier would not lack rivals. Bebé, Dong Fangzhou, Manucho and Massimo Taibi all wore the famous shirt at Old Trafford…

But then Prunier might not have been so obscure had he rattled that net…

Advertisements

Ryan’s Riddle

As featured on Pundit Arena

wordpress101

Ryan Giggs put on a brave face before the television cameras during Euro 2016, yet despite his own off-field experiences one can only imagine what he has been going through.

While several players put themselves in the shop window in France, Giggs was doing likewise on ITV. Having joined Manchester United almost 30 years ago, the club legend can no longer be found at Carrington.

Having had his managerial appetite whetted in the aftermath of David Moyes’ tenure before becoming assistant manager under Louis van Gaal, Giggs was overlooked for the main job in favour of Jose Mourinho. The subsequent installation of Rui Faria at Mourinho’s side further proved that Giggs’ aspirations clearly conflicted with the plans of the new manager.

While a position further down the pecking order was in the offing, Giggs’ pride intervened. He now finds himself on holiday in the middle of August for the first time in his professional career.

The reason is simple: Manchester United are no longer a football club; they are a corporation. Corporations demand success, often spending vast sums to ensure it. This sentiment has only been enhanced by the world record acquisition of Paul Pogba. Despite an overhaul that leaves only five first-team players from Pogba’s initial stint in Manchester, Van Gaal’s failure at the helm dictated that further change was needed.

It was no secret that Giggs yearned for the top job and he will have pointed to the success enjoyed by several ex-professionals at Europe’s biggest clubs. But while the Welshman may have pitched his desire to create a new dynasty at the club just as he had been bred in the culture of success in the No. 11 shirt, ultimately his credentials were much less certain in a shirt and tie.

In any event, those to whom Giggs most likely referenced were in different positions before they acceded to the main role in their respective clubs. Pep Guardiola, for instance, profited from the work of his predecessor. It was Frank Rijkaard who largely assembled the squad that would go on to dominate European football.

In his first season in charge Guardiola’s biggest alteration was to remove Deco and an injury-plagued Ronaldinho from his ranks to give more authority to those already at the club, namely the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and a certain Lionel Messi. The Argentine duly contributed 38 goals as his side claimed a domestic double and the Champions League. Giggs would not have enjoyed the same privilege – whether he could have attracted the type of players that Manchester United required was an obvious worry.

Guardiola’s greatest achievement has been in maintaining a level of success at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. However, neither required much repair work. At Barcelona, the famed La Masia academy ensured that his squad continuously evolved, while all were well-versed in his favoured tiki-taka style first advanced by Johann Cruyff during Guardiola’s playing career at the club. Furthermore, when Guardiola assumed control at Bayern in 2013, they were the reigning Bundesliga and European champions.

Now at Manchester City, the Spaniard’s managerial capacity will be given its sternest test yet. Having already scaled the heights of the Premier League under Roberto Mancini, Sheikh Mansour demands Champions League success. While Xavi would maintain that Guardiola has all the characteristics and experience to finally transform them into a European heavyweight, others would argue that he already has European semi-finalists in his control, in addition to a £300 million war chest.

wordpress102

Having led Barcelona B to promotion from Segunda Division B, Guardiola and his assistant Tito Vilanova were ideally placed to assume the reins from Rijkaard in 2008. Similarly, at Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane ascended to the coaching zenith from within. Giggs undoubtedly considered this modern trend of promotion when pitching his cause. However, it is largely ignored that Guardiola had already been expanding his ambition by playing out the latter part of his career in Italy further developing the tactical education that is provided on the continent.

Zidane, meanwhile, waited patiently for eight years in a variety of guises learning from the likes of Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and even Rafa Benitez before being entrusted with the wheel. Moreover, like Guardiola, Zidane should be grateful for a team replete with the two most expensive players in the world and a support cast comprising a host of international stars.

While pride was undoubtedly at play, Giggs’ decision to depart his beloved home is a brave one. Now, while on holiday with his estranged wife, he must consider his options. Several clubs have been mooted – not least Hull City where a partnership with Mike Phelan (Sir Alex Ferguson’s former assistant) is conceivable. However, there is arguably too much at stake for the Tigers for them to consider employing someone of his inexperience.

Giggs’ own former colleagues knows only too well that jumping the gun to manage a top-level club is risky business. Gary Neville’s tenure at Valencia was an unmitigated disaster, Clarence Seedorf’s stint at AC Milan wasn’t much better, whilst Alan Shearer (Newcastle Utd), Gary McAllister (Coventry City), Attilo Lombardo (Crystal Palace) and Gianfranco Zola (West Ham) have all experienced less than successful stints in the top flight.

wordpress103

Kenny Dalglish is an obvious exception, but when installed as player-manager at Anfield in 1985 Liverpool were already the best team in England and had contested the European Cup Final. In any event, the landscape of football in England has changed considerably. Were Giggs to lead Manchester United through another mediocre season, the knives would have been sharpened and the status of a great legend would have been diminished. Given the success that the corporation demands, Mourinho was ultimately too much of a guarantee to ignore.

Of those who have managed a measure of longevity in the English top-flight, the vast majority has plied their trade in the lower leagues. Sam Allardyce famously managed Limerick City before returning to England. His ascension to the English job comprised tenures at Preston North End, Blackpool and Notts County before Bolton Wanderers finally thrust him into the spotlight. Harry Redknapp guided Bournemouth from the brink of relegation to the Division 3 title in 1987. Tony Pulis also spent time at Bournemouth before moving to Gillingham and Bristol City. Alan Pardew began at Reading in Division 2. Famously, Claudio Ranieri was at little-known Vigor Lamezia and Puteolana before guiding Cagliari from Serie C to Serie A.

Every manager will aspire to the top jobs, but if a sustained career in the managerial fold is the goal then one must learn their trade. With less straining economic anxieties to contend with, managers tend to be given more time at a lower level.

Time is invaluable in the game and an increasingly rare commodity. Time affords managers the opportunity try different things, acquire a grounded knowledge base, the experience to deal with the inevitable pressures and learn to adjust alongside an ever-evolving game. Such adaptability will be essential to surviving in the Premier League where success must be instant and extraneous concerns are prevalent – fans, the media, transfers and egos.

The likes of Guardiola and Zidane happened to be in the right place at the right time. Old Trafford was no such place for Ryan Giggs. Whether or not he will ever return is anyone’s guess. Many others have departed for pastures new with similar aspirations and simply failed to show the abilities that the job demands – therein will lie Giggs’ primary concern.

But while he will have been undoubtedly devastated, much like a separation, in time he will learn that as difficult as it may have been, it is for the best. Perhaps now he will have a career in management, only it probably won’t ever be in Manchester.

 

 

Mourinho’s Misfits

As published on Pundit Arena

wordpress82

Given José Mourinho’s treatment of Juan Mata last weekend, it became eminently clear that the Portuguese has not arrived at Old Trafford to make friends. His stern expression ever since his appointment was announced suggests that he is a man on a mission.

As with all of his previous roles, Mourinho has a definitive plan that he will seek to implement. If a player cannot adapt or abide by his instructions, then there will be only one place for them – Manchester Piccadilly train station.

It seems certain that several players will pass through the exit door in the coming weeks. Paul Pogba’s expensive acquisition requires it. While David Moyes performed meekly in the transfer market, Louis van Gaal stepped up the game in signing the likes of Angel di Maria, Ander Herrera and Marcos Rojo for considerable sums. Meanwhile, several stalwarts of the Ferguson era found themselves on the scrapheap. It was a substantial turnover of playing staff.

Van Gaal adopted the same approach the following year. Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Matteo Darmian, Bastien Schweinsteiger and Anthony Martial all became Red Devils, whilst Tom Cleverley, Robin van Persie, Nani, Rafael, Jonny Evans and Di Maria were excused.

Of those who were plying their trade in red when Pogba was last at the club, only five senior players remain: David de Gea, Phil Jones, Wayne Rooney, Chris Smalling and Ashley Young. The landscape of Manchester United has been changing for the past number of years and more will surely come to pass through the exit door.

 

Victor Valdes

wordpress78

Widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the history of Barcelona, Valdes joined United following his rehabilitation from a knee injury in January 2015. While the Spaniard was never expected to oust David de Gea from the number one jersey, he was a most capable deputy. However, after refusing to play in a reserve fixture, Valdes was banished from Louis van Gaal’s first team. A loan spell at Standard Liege soon followed, before Jose Mourinho finally signed off on his departure to Aitor Karanka’s Middlesbrough in July.

_____

Donald Love

One of ‘Louis’ Lads’, Love made a promising debut albeit in the 2-1 defeat to Sunderland last February. While he started in a depleted side against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League the following week, the simultaneous development of Guillermo Varela hampered the young Scot’s first-team prospects. Love is set to follow Paddy McNair to the Stadium of Light for a fee thought to be £1 million, while Varela is now at Eintracht Frankfurt on a season-long loan.

_____

Cameron Borthwick-Jackson

Another to have been promoted by Van Gaal, Borthwick-Jackson prospered on account of Luke Shaw’s unfortunate injury last season. While Mourinho has claimed that he has given 49 youth players their first-team debuts, there is a sense that he will continue put his faith in those he feels are ready to do a job. Borthwick-Jackson, despite signing a contract keeping him at the club until 2020, is not quite at that stage yet. With Shaw’s return, allied to the ability of Darmian to cover the left-hand side of defence, it is likely that the youngster will be offered out on loan this campaign.

_____

Paddy McNair

An unlikely hero at the outset of Van Gaal’s tenure, McNair suffered a sudden fall from grace after a disappointing first-half performance at Southampton in December 2014. The Dutchman later claimed that it was McNair’s lack of confidence thereafter that precluded him from the first team for the rest of the season, and he has only made a handful of appearances ever since. Nevertheless, his contributions to Northern Ireland’s journey to Euro 2016 have ensured that he was not going to be forgotten entirely. He is set to make a £5 million switch to David Moyes’ Sunderland for the coming season.

_____

Marcos Rojo

Eternally linked with a move away from the club, Rojo’s off-field antics have not endeared him to the Old Trafford hierarchy. Signed by Van Gaal for £16 million from Sporting Lisbon, the Argentine has struggled to hold down a place in the starting XI. Last year, Rojo failed to appear for United’s pre-season tour following his international commitments at the Copa America, prompting Van Gaal to offer him to AS Monaco as a makeweight in the Anthony Martial deal. Mourinho would appear to carry a similar opinion of the defender and was apparently left incensed when Rojo recently turned down a £12 million move to Shanghai SIPG, who are managed by Sven Goran-Eriksson.

_____

Phil Jones

wordpress79

Once hailed as the new Duncan Edwards, Jones has fallen far short of the future that beckoned when he first emerged on the scene at Blackburn Rovers in 2009 at 18 years of age. Given his no nonsense approach, Jones is the type of defender that Mourinho arguably requires. While Eric Bailly is a tremendous athlete and Chris Smalling an ever-improving defender, the loss of Nemanja Vidic has been keenly felt by the Old Trafford faithful. However, Jones badly needs to stamp out the errors that have strewn his game time in recent years and must shift the liability tag that has consequently followed. There had been suggestions that Steve Bruce was keen to offer him a shot at redemption at Hull City, but whether Mike Phelan, as his likely replacement, chooses to explore that option is unknown.

_____

Bastien Schweinsteiger

As Germany’s fourth-capped player of all-time, Schweinsteiger’s recent demotion to the reserves suggests that the World Cup winner will not be at Old Trafford for much longer – provided a suitor can be found. Schweinsteiger’s injury troubles have been well documented to the point that Pep Guardiola claimed that he has not been fit enough for several years. Last season, the veteran managed just 18 appearances for Van Gaal’s team. Bayern Munich have reportedly expressed an interest in taking their former captain back, but significant wage demands may prove to be a stumbling block.

_____

Ashley Young

A loyal servant throughout his time in Manchester, Young’s ability has often been a divisive point of conversation in the Stretford End. Arriving with aplomb in 2011, Young’s United career reached stratospheric heights following his role in the 8-2 demolition of Arsenal. However, neither Young nor the management have managed to find a full-time position for the 30-times capped England international. Indeed, more often than not Young has been asked to fill a void on the pitch and has appeared as a makeshift right-back, left-back, central midfielder and striker during his time. Rumours of his impending departure have intensified in recent days when he was spotted on the train to London, with Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace believed to be his destination.

_____

James Wilson

Having suffered the ignominy of being overlooked last season when Van Gaal was shorn of a strike force, a further nail in Wilson’s Old Trafford coffin arrived when the promising youngster failed to receive a squad number for the coming season under Mourinho. As United faced an uncertain period at what was a crucial juncture of the season last February, there were widespread calls for Van Gaal to recall Wilson from Brighton & Hove Albion. With only Anthony Martial and the inexperienced Will Keane at his disposal, it seemed like a wise decision. However, Van Gaal, as is his wont, went in a different direction, promoting the unknown Marcus Rashford to the first team. Rashford, of course, quickly became a revelation and nobody spoke of Wilson again. Now, with Rashford, Martial, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Memphis Depay all being employed in the central striking areas, Wilson must finally say goodbye to Old Trafford for good.

_____

Juan Mata

wordpress80

There are contrasting views on Juan Mata’s situation in Manchester. While José Mourinho sold him to David Moyes in 2014 under somewhat acrimonious circumstances, there is a belief that the Portuguese may be willing to hold onto the fans’ favourite on this occasion. Yet, following his introduction and swift hooking by Mourinho at Wembley last week, it is hard to deny that Mata remains under scrutiny. With Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s arrival, allied to the likely deployment of Wayne Rooney in a deeper position, Mata – who was recently omitted from Spain’s Euro 2016 squad – may have to take things into his own hands and prompt a transfer. At almost 29 years of age, he will know that time on the Old Trafford bench will not be something he will look back fondly upon.

_____

Adnan Januzaj

Having endured a difficult time during Van Gaal’s first season, Januzaj looked set to redeem himself in the following campaign when he scored his first goal for over a year to defeat Aston Villa in August 2015. However, just two weeks later the Belgian found himself on his way to Borussia Dortmund. Over the course of the next five months, Januzaj only managed to start three games in the Bundesliga and was recalled to Manchester in January 2016. Having made such a promising impact upon his introduction to the first team under Moyes, Januzaj’s stuttered career has disappointed many. Nevertheless, his potential has not deserted him. While Mourinho may have already decided that the Belgian’s career lies elsewhere in the future, he maybe given one more chance to prove that he is of some economic value in a temporary arrangement.

Opinion: A Failing Warrior Under Pressure to Maintain his Cutting Edge

As published on Pundit Arena

wordpress73

In making it to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, Wales have enjoyed a better success rate in the knockout stages of a major tournament than England have been able to manage in 20 years. Throughout that time, various figures have been unreasonably scapegoated by the British press and vilified throughout the stadiums of England – the likes of David Beckham (1998), David Seaman (2002), Darius Vassell (2004), Wayne Rooney (2006) and Rob Greene (2010) have all returned home needing to redeem their tarnished reputations.

While some of those named descended into ignominy for the remainder of their careers, Beckham and Rooney used the heavy-handed criticism as motivating tools. Indeed, just one year after his sending off against Argentina in St. Etienne, Beckham was celebrating a historic treble with Manchester United – his performances pitting him a close second to Rivaldo in the Fifa World Player of the Year Awards. Eight years later, Rooney experienced similar hatred before spearheading United’s assault on the Premier League. With Rooney in tandem with Cristiano Ronaldo, the club regained the title for the first time in three seasons despite the loss of Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Given that he is England’s all-time record goalscorer, Rooney will inevitably go down as one of England’s greatest players, but many will point to the reality that he has done little more than lead an English side home prematurely from a major tournament.

Although he burst onto the scene at Euro 2004, Rooney has led the line for his country at five subsequent tournaments, failing to breach the quarter-final stage whilst his most noteworthy contribution in front of goal was a tap-in in the 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in Brazil. On Wednesday evening, as Ronaldo led Portugal out in Lyon to face Wales, Rooney may have sat pondering whether he has finally run out of chances to emerge from beneath another underwhelming campaign in the England shirt.

Following his sending off against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup, Rooney undoubtedly benefitted from the experiences gleaned by Sir Alex Ferguson in the aftermath of the vitriol dished out to Beckham in 1998. As with Beckham, Ferguson thrust Rooney onto the pitch rather than protecting him from the baying mobs. The best way for Rooney to answer his detractors was on the field of play. But that was a different time in Manchester.

wordpress74

In August 2006, Rooney was entering into his third season at Old Trafford and very much at the heart of Ferguson’s plans. With the sale of van Nistelrooy to Real Madrid, it was clear that Ferguson was building a new side around Rooney’s strength and energy and the dazzling ability of Ronaldo. Even when Ronaldo finally followed van Nistelrooy to the Bernabeu, Rooney revelled in filling the void with some of the best goalscoring exploits of his career.

However, Rooney is no longer the main man.

At 30, Rooney should be at the height of his peak. As captain of both club and country and with Bobby Charlton’s 249 goals firmly in sight, theoretically the hopes of Manchester United’s immediate future should be resting on his shoulders rather than those of a man in his mid-30s and two youngsters barely out of puberty.

Where Rooney fits in José Mourinho’s plans are intriguing. Speaking at his first press conference at the helm of United earlier this week, the Portuguese said:

“One thing that will never change is his natural appetite to put the ball in the net. Maybe he is not a striker, not a No. 9 anymore. But with me he will never be a No. 6, playing 50m from goal.

“Yes, his passing is amazing but mine is also amazing without pressure. Many players have a great pass, but to put the ball in the net is the most difficult. He will be a No. 9, a No. 10, a No. 9.5, but never a No. 6 or a No. 8.”

It would appear then that while the midfield experiment was fleeting, Mourinho is nevertheless reluctant to pin his colours to any particular mast. On the face of it, Rooney’s move into midfield was merited. With his pace failing and his usual composure in front of goal lacking, he sought to impose himself on fixtures from a different perspective.

wordpress76

Ever since Paul Scholes opted to hang up his boots, United have missed a player with the ability to make the killer pass. With an apparent unwillingness to delegate, Rooney felt obliged to take up that same role and was therefore found to drop deeper in an effort to provide that cutting edge. This exhibited a naivety in his captaincy – yet it suited Louis van Gaal. With the emergence of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, the Dutchman had suddenly found the pace and potency that Rooney no longer possessed. In a similar vein, Rooney became the fourth-choice striker for England as Hodgson turned to Harry Kane, with Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge his able deputies.

Having begun the last campaign with a threadbare strike force, United now possess one of the most exciting attacking players in the Premier League. Zlatan Ibrahimovic will bring a mercurial presence to Old Trafford once again, while Rashford and Martial will learn a great deal from the Swede. Henrikh Mkhitaryan will hope to carry his Bundesliga form into the Premiership, while Memphis Depay will be given an opportunity to prove a point by Mourinho.

Rooney’s career at United is far from over, but it is far from certain what role he will be given to play and when he will play it. Given his recent scoring record, it is unlikely that Mourinho will trust Rooney to drive United’s challenge, especially considering that Ibrahimovic notched 50 goals for Paris St. Germain last season. With Ibrahimovic providing a focal point, space will be created in the wider areas for the likes of Martial et al to prosper – Rooney’s over eagerness to get involved tended to clutter the same zones.

Many question whether Rooney has suffered a form of burn-out from a career that has already seen him tally almost 600 senior appearances. Since he ended Arsenal’s 30-game unbeaten run as a well developed 16-year-old for Everton in 2002, he has been the great hope for British football, leading the charge for every team in which he has played. Whether 2016 represents the beginning of the end for Wayne Rooney is anyone’s guess, but what cannot be denied is that he is no longer the player that relentlessly put fear in the eyes of his wary opposition.