NORTHAMPTON, England — On a night when he needed to deliver, a night when he needed to demonstrate his importance to his manager and had to prove he was worthy of his reputation, Ander Herrera came through for Manchester United. His rasping, long-range drive helped his club avoid what might have been a humiliating night in Northampton.
For his teammate Wayne Rooney, however, the frustration continues to deepen. Used for the first time this season as an out-and-out striker, Rooney missed a series of first-half chances and then faded badly after the break.
After three days of sustained and heavy criticism, this was a huge test for Rooney, and he knew it. Before the game, as the other players went for a light jog and stretch, he had other ideas. He strode straight over to the sack of balls in the centre circle. Picking one out, he dropped it at his feet and went for a dribble, lost in the moment, feet flashing around the ball.
Light jogs weren’t going to help him here. Goals were the only things that could do that. While he shuttled back and forth across the turf, Jose Mourinho was telling television reporters much the same.
The Portuguese has been patient, perhaps even indulgent, with Rooney, but he must have his limits. Rooney hasn’t performed as a No. 10, he hasn’t performed as a No. 6. Now he was being deployed in the position that always suited him best: No. 9. Centre-forward. But it didn’t work. Indeed, he couldn’t have worked much harder, chasing and harrying defenders, running himself into the ground. But it came to nothing.
As one of only two survivors from the Watford starting lineup and after 90 fruitless minutes here, it’s hard to see Rooney retaining his place for this weekend’s clash with Leicester. Marcus Rashford, sent on to help out 10 minutes into the second half, scored one and assisted on another. He is the future. Rooney is beginning to look like the past.
Three chances came and went for the captain in the first six minutes alone. His 17th-minute free kick, won inside the penalty area when goalkeeper Adam Smith foolishly picked up a back pass, did at least lead to the first goal, albeit indirectly. Rooney blasted it off the Northampton wall, and the ball bounced into the path of Michael Carrick, who, in stark contrast to his captain, had no problem finding the back of the net. Afterward, he refused to entertain the notion that he had “proved himself” to his manager.
“Not really, no,” Carrick said. “I’m not going to change my game now. He knows exactly what I can do, my strengths. Just like every player, you play some games and you miss some games. We are all in it together and it was nice to bounce back. Everyone has got to calm down now in terms of how they reacted.”
But midway through the first half, the frustration was beginning to tell on Rooney. He began to drift wide and drop deep, searching for the ball, desperate to make something happen. He had it in the net on the half-hour mark, nodding home when Timothy Fosu-Mensah’s header bounced off the bar, but Rooney was offside.
Mourinho simply watched from the sideline impassively, hands in pockets. He said afterward that he thought United should have been two or three up by then. Ten minutes later, Northampton equalised from the penalty spot.
Rashford and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were immediately sent to warm up, a foreboding sight for any Northampton supporter. Not that they seemed cowed. The home fans were delighted. “You’re getting sacked in the morning!” they roared at Mourinho before telling him that he was, “just a s— Guardiola.”
If Mourinho was stung, he didn’t show it. He resisted the urge to make any changes at the break, but his patience held for only 10 more minutes. On came Rashford and Ibrahimovic. Rooney was shifted wide, marginalised on the right. The move paid off, and when Herrera smashed the ball home to restore the lead, Rooney pumped his fists in delight. But he was flagging, and his touch was beginning to deteriorate.
Still, he strove to offer something to the cause, even when Rashford had secured a two-goal cushion. Rooney flew into an injury-time block in his own half that prevented Northampton from getting a rare cross in the penalty area. Moments later, he was up the other end, swinging in a cross for Ibrahimovic. But time was running away from him. Against third-division opposition, he had a simple brief here, and he failed to fulfil it.
Mourinho didn’t make himself available for questions afterward, but privately, he must have drawn conclusions from this night — a far tenser affair than it should have been. At the very least, Rooney looks as if he needs a rest. But having now played him in every conceivable position, Mourinho may slowly be coming to the conclusion that the problem is a little more serious than that.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.