There was a moment in the Southampton game a few people might not have noticed. Wayne Rooney, in possession just inside his own half, looked up, anticipating what he hoped would be Antonio Valencia doing his duty as wing back and surging forward into the wide open space in front. But Valencia was nowhere to be seen. Rooney became surrounded and the ball was lost; Southampton pounced and surged forward, and the stranded Valencia found himself in the headlights. As the camera panned right Rooney was visibly enraged, incandescent as to why he hadn’t been provided with the option he wanted.
It was example of how Valencia has, at times, struggled to adapt to his position. But more importantly it showed the extent to which Rooney has immersed himself not only into the captain’s role that Van Gaal chose to bestow upon him, but into the system that his manager has created. Last night Rooney was everything a manager wants in a captain: tireless, vocal, and with an ability to produce a moment of gleaming quality when it mattered most. His free kick to the back post should have been dealt with by Southampton, but it was perfectly weighted, tantalisingly close to Fraser Forster and the game changing moment that United so desperately needed.
There would have been plenty of shaking heads when van Gaal appointed Rooney as captain back in August, when Robin van Persie, who led van Gaal’s Netherlands side at the World Cup, appeared to be the favourite. For a player who on two occasions had very publicly courted a move away from Old Trafford, to wear the armband might have rankled with some supporters. But van Gaal evidently has no truck with events that didn’t take place under his watch. This is my team now, the decision said. My club, my rules.
Announcing the decision Van Gaal, never given to making the choices people expect him to make, was clear. “For me it’s always very important the choice of captain,” he said at the time. “Wayne has shown a great attitude towards everything he does. I have been very impressed by his professionalism and his attitude to training and to my philosophy. He is a great inspiration to the younger members of the team and I believe he will put his heart and soul into his captaincy role.” From the start, it seems, Van Gaal had Rooney pegged as the man to be his voice on the pitch.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, not normally one to toot anyone’s horn but his own, has also recognised the more subtle qualities that Rooney possesses. “For me, Rooney is not the player who scores 40 goals a season,” he told the BBC in 2013. “But he is the player who helps his partner score lots of goals because he is working for one, two and maybe three other players. It seems like he has a strong mentality to win – like me he doesn’t like to lose.”
And Rooney has vindicated his manager’s choice. He has four goals and three assists in his last seven Premier League games and with the exception of the clumsy, rather than vicious, red card against West Ham his discipline has been controlled. Talk of the Rooney tank running on empty and of the player being a spent force has subsided as he has quietly, but forcefully, taken control of United’s forward lines. It is clear that Van Gaal recognised Rooney as a player who is happy when he knows he is valued. “You knew Rooney was going to score when he was going 1 vs 1 with the keeper,” Dutch journalist and LVG-expert Elko Born tweeted of the goal at the Emirates. ” [The] Manager’s trust is so important for him, at England and United.”
What United need now, of course, is a greater balance in the squad. Rooney’s leadership of United’s attacking verve is crying out to be complimented by similar leader at the back. Chris Smalling has performed the role of mentor to Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett admirably since his sending off against City, as well as occasionally having to babysit the alarmingly erratic Marcos Rojo. But much has made of how United have missed the authority of Nemanja Vidic and never has that been the case as strongly as it is now. Rooney is leading from the front; another leader is needed for the back.
Where the Rooney story goes from here is anyone’s guess. But there is a confidence and contentedness in the striker that hasn’t been seen for a good while. In this form, I would fear for Liverpool this weekend. No one needs reminding that the last time they visited Old Trafford was, with the possible exception of the Olympiakos debacle, the lowest of the low under Moyes, as Brendan Rogers’s side strolled to a 3-0 win. On that day Rooney’s partnership with van Persie was horribly disjointed. Do not expect the same on Sunday, as United look to take their turn to pile the misery on a club bereft of spirit.
Rooney’s troubled history at United will probably prevent him from ever being truly loved by a vast section of United’s support. But his contribution to the surging upswing that United have experienced this last month has been enormous, as Louis van Gaal’s project finally begins to take shape. With Rooney at the helm, with his manager’s complete trust and backing, he might just be able to put the past behind him.