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Ken Early: What must be done with Wayne Rooney?

Mourinho has now suffered 16 defeats in 34 games, more than Mark Hughes at Stoke City

Wayne Rooney: has lost the confidence of the Manchester United crowd. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty

The day before England played their opening match of Euro 2016, Wayne Rooney appeared alongside Roy Hodgson at the pre-match press conference in the Stade Velodrome.

A Chinese journalist told Rooney that millions of people across China would be getting out of bed at 3am to watch him lead England’s lions. The question said a lot about why Rooney is so valued by the executives who run Manchester United. Not many other players at Euro 2016 were getting that kind of attention.

But neither were many of them being asked the sort of question a Russian journalist asked Rooney: “Wayne, there is a popular opinion in the Russian team that Wayne Rooney is not the same as he was a few years ago. What do you think about that, because this opinion is repeated by Russian players and even by the Russian assistant coach?”

Rooney’s reply on that occasion was that he didn’t care about the opinion of Russian players or the Russian assistant coach. The only opinions he cared about were those of his team-mates and his manager.

The debate over Rooney’s form has only intensified in the three months since. Within a couple of hours of Manchester United losing to Watford on Sunday, highlights videos were circulating showcasing all of Rooney’s worst touches. So what does his current manager think?

We can guess that, right now, José Mourinho is mainly thinking about how he is going to stop the pummelling his reputation is taking from a worrying series of bad results.


Three defeats

The defeat at Watford meant that United had lost three matches in a week. That sort of run has not happened very often in Mourinho’s career.

His Chelsea team did lose three matches in a row in the summer of 2006, but the first two of those defeats came at the end of the 2005-06 season, after they had already won the title, and the third came 10 weeks later, in the Charity Shield. The only other time a Mourinho team has lost three matches in a row in the same season was in the spring of 2002, a few weeks after he took over at Porto.

So the current run is really quite a big crisis for him in career-statistical terms. Few managers are more acutely aware of such statistics. Mourinho pointed out in his post-match press conference yesterday that he’d had the best start of any Manchester United manager, with four wins from his first four matches.

Looking at the bigger picture, Mourinho’s situation seems even worse. He has lost 16 of his past 34 matches. To put that in perspective, consider that Mark Hughes, whose Stoke team has struggled for months, has lost 15 of his last 34.

At the moment, Mourinho is shielded by circumstance: it’s still early in the season, signings still need time to bed in, he hasn’t had long to work with the team, and so on. But these caveats will only keep criticism at bay for so long.

Certainly, he could have done without Pep Guardiola starting off at Manchester City with a club-record run of eight successive victories. If Guardiola’s players seem to have more confidence in what they are doing, maybe it’s because the manager has a clearer idea of what he is looking for.

He decided at the very beginning that Yaya Touré and Joe Hart did not fit into his vision for Manchester City. Touré in particular had been a key player in City’s title-winning teams, and on his good days last season he was still capable of running Premier League games.

There were plenty at Manchester City who would have liked Touré to be given a chance; fans remember the great days. But Guardiola decided that Touré was no longer good enough, and he had the courage to back his own judgment.

Mourinho, too, showed a ruthless side when he took over at United. Bastian Schweinsteiger learned early on that he would not be part of the manager’s plans.

It’s debatable whether Mourinho was correct to dump Schweinsteiger. He is physically past his best, but United could probably use his know-how in midfield, particularly as they seek to help Paul Pogba find his best role. Even an ageing Schweinsteiger would surely be a better midfield partner for Pogba than Marouane Fellaini. Mourinho clearly thinks otherwise, and on Schweinsteiger, the manager has at least been consistent.

Muddled

But in the case of Rooney, his thinking appears muddled. Mourinho declared early on that Rooney would never play for him as a midfielder. But that’s where he played for a lot of the Watford game. Is Mourinho admitting he was wrong?

Outside the club, the Rooney debate has shifted from whether he’s best deployed as a forward or midfielder, to whether he deserves to play at all. He has lost the confidence of the crowd.

So Mourinho has a choice. Does he work with Rooney to try to bring that confidence back? Or does he throw him to the wolves? If United suffer another couple of defeats in the next few weeks, the collective desire for a scapegoat might make his mind up.

The executives in charge of Manchester United have spoken about how they see the club as “the biggest TV show in the world,” and Rooney is one of the best-known and longest-running characters. But that’s one thing about TV shows: from time to time, even the popular characters get killed off.