LONDON, Jan 9: Jose Mourinho believes record-equalling Wayne Rooney can extend his Manchester United career like Michael Carrick and Zlatan Ibrahimovic with careful management – but it means we will see less of him on the pitch.
At 31, Rooney is one goal away from becoming United’s highest scorer after equalling Sir Bobby Charlton’s 249-goal record in this easy victory against Reading in the FA Cup third round on Saturday. The England and United captain should get the chance to eclipse Sir Bobby in Tuesday’s EFL Cup semi-final first leg at home to Hull City, or in the eagerly awaited visit of arch-rivals Liverpool on Sunday.
That Rooney has also matched Charlton’s goal tally from 217 fewer games (Rooney has played 541 matches while Charlton held United’s appearance record with 758 until Ryan Giggs broke it in the 2008 Champions League final) is also to be applauded, although the younger man played as a centre forward position for longer.
But while United manager Mourinho expects Rooney to write his own name in the history books, his way of ensuring that feat is achieved looks set to be against a backdrop of thinning match time – and goals. Rooney’s appearance against the Royals was only the seventh time he has completed a full 90 minutes this season, a campaign which has been by far the scarcest amount of time we have seen him on the pitch during his near 13 years at Old Trafford.
Rooney equalled Sir Bobby Charlton’s Man Utd goalscoring record against Reading.
Completing a full game just twice in the Premier League in 2016-17, he has made just eight starts in the competition, with a further six appearances coming off the bench.
It is perhaps no wonder he was back to his bustling best against Championship opposition at the weekend when you consider he had not played for three weeks – since a 2-0 win at West Bromwich Albion on Dec 17 – at what is traditionally the busiest time of the year for professional footballers.
The goals are drying up too. Rooney has mustered just one in the Premier League this season – in a 3-1 win at Bournemouth on Aug 14 – and, for the third successive season, it seems certain he will fail to hit double figures in top-flight football, a feat he managed in each of his first 10 seasons at Old Trafford.
Rooney has only scored once in the Premier League this season.
But we should remember that while contemporaries such as Giggs and to a lesser extent Steven Gerrard had their game time curtailed in their latter years, Rooney was a man at 16 and, as such, has been playing regular first-team football every season since.
While others have plenty in the tank from later and less dramatic arrivals on the scene, Rooney has plenty of miles on the clock, and the maintenance that goes with a naturally stocky frame.
Mourinho, perhaps more than anyone, recognises the balance of playing Rooney enough to keep him match-fit, and resting him sufficiently to ensure he has enough impact when selected.
With almost 2½ years left on his £300,000-a-week, five-year contract signed in 2014, only the riches on offer in China could match his lucrative pay cheque at Old Trafford at this time in his career.
That ‘game management’ has already started with team-mate Michael Carrick. At 35, Carrick has made the same number of Premier League starts this season as Rooney – eight – but has only featured in 16 of United’s 31 matches in all competitions.
Much like David Beckham’s cameos for England during his drawn-out retirement from international football, it seems Rooney is destined for the same route to ensure he is as shiny as possible when he does play. TELEGRAPH