Manchester United glimpse shining future beyond Rooney

Rooney has a habit of dropping too deep, too often, his replacement, Mata, maintained his position higher up the field.

Published: 26th September 2016 09:05 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th September 2016 09:05 AM   |  A+A-

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Manchester United's Wayne Rooney | AP

Those Manchester United supporters who have been demanding Wayne Rooney's removal from the team for some time were understandably eager to make a direct correlation between the captain's absence and the immediate upturn in performance on Saturday. It was probably not quite as straightforward as that.

Leicester City were so poor defensively that even an underperforming Rooney might have gorged himself against the bedraggled Premier League champions. But there was little doubt that United looked more balanced, fluent and coherent than they have done with the laboured England forward bungling his way through recent games.

In truth, it was not just the omission of Rooney that benefited United. They were a far slicker outfit with Ander Herrera anchoring the midfield than the clunky figure of Marouane Fellaini, but it is clear the spotlight is fixed firmly on Rooney.

Jose Mourinho, the United manager, has been criticised in some quarters for not jettisoning Rooney when he first arrived at Old Trafford in the summer but he knew that if he gave the player a chance and it was not taken, not many would be likely to turn around and question the wisdom of dropping him.

In the end, Rooney needed only seven games to play his way out of the side, and while Chris Smalling, who assumed the captaincy against Leicester, offered some words of support to "our main man", few would be surprised if this signalled the start of him becoming a more peripheral figure at Old Trafford.

Mourinho's decision may also have made life a little easier for England manager Sam Allardyce, who will find it a lot simpler not picking Rooney when he is not playing regularly for his club, if he has concluded that the 30-year-old should no longer be an automatic pick for the national team. Allardyce, Rooney will note, was at Old Trafford on Saturday.

This is not a rush to kick Rooney, who knows better than most that past achievements count for little and that players are judged on the here and now. Sir Alex Ferguson once described United as a "bus that waits for no man" and that bus now threatens to speed off with Rooney looking on in the distance.

Smalling believes Rooney will bounce back but that will be hard if Mourinho has resolved to phase out his captain. "I think Wayne's a very experienced guy and he's played that many games that I think it'll only be a matter of time before he's back in there and firing again because he's quality," Smalling said.

"He's our captain and he's one of our main players and there's no doubt that he's got a lot to offer. Whatever the situation is, whether he is on the bench or playing, he is always the same type of character and that's why he is England's main man and our main man. He is often one of the most vocal and he was the same today. He's still the same, in the changing room talking. That's something that will never change with Wayne."

Whereas Rooney has a habit of dropping too deep, too often, his replacement, Juan Mata, maintained his position higher up the field and United were much the better for it.

The goals by Smalling, Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba all came from corners, an indictment of Leicester's defending as much as a reflection of the brilliance of Daley Blind's delivery, but it was the outstanding second goal from Mata that best showcased United's fluidity during a dazzling 20-minute burst in the first half. The Spaniard started and finished it via a lovely interchange of passes involving Pogba and Jesse Lingard and in that moment Rooney - who was happily playing with his children after the match - must have come to accept that his omission is likely to extend beyond a single game.

After three defeats in their previous four games, Smalling hopes United have turned a corner. "I think it is [a big moment]," he said. "There was a lot of talk for us to turn the situation around because that was obviously a very bad week we had but we could only show that we've changed by doing it on the pitch. This gives us a marker now to make sure we attain that [level]. It's just playing on that front foot with that urgency.

"I think you try to shut out [the defeats] because we know we are a lot better than we showed but it is hard when you're not winning games. You can't say you enjoy yourself too much. Winning and dominating games is how everyone gets their confidence back. I think if we can play with that tempo, there's not many teams that can live with us but it's about finding that consistency to make sure we stay at the top end of the table because we don't want any more blips. We've had our blip hopefully for quite a while."

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