Wayne Rooney saved Ronald Koeman’s job. That was the slant some placed upon the forward’s equaliser against Brighton, anyway. In reality, it is hard to imagine Everton pulling the trigger this week had they lost to the promoted club. But take away Rooney’s Sunday goal, his winner against Stoke and his opener in the draw with Manchester City and the Dutchman may have been gone by now.
Another interpretation is that Rooney has imperilled Koeman’s chances of continued employment. That is not to say blame should be lumped upon the returning Evertonian. It is scarcely his fault that Everton failed to sign the target man they required to replace the £75 million, 25-goal Romelu Lukaku. He has not excelled but among Koeman’s senior players, he has been less culpable than Morgan Schneiderlin and Ashley Williams, to name but two, for their wretched start. Among the summer signings, he has delivered more than Sandro Ramirez and Davy Klaassen, to name but two who might envy his tally of four goals.
But since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, and at a point when had he remained at Manchester United Rooney would seemingly have been sold, he has had a marked effect on his managers’ job security. He has shortened it. Dramatically.
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Only Jose Mourinho and Gareth Southgate have felt immune from the curse of Rooney. Each took a pre-emptive strike early in his reign and dropped his captain. Both were seemingly controversial calls that were stripped of contentiousness. Rooney had declined to such an extent that when United and England underperformed, it was scarcely credible to contend the solution was to restore the omitted icon.
Rooney at least performed reasonably well for David Moyes in his sole season at Old Trafford; yet a preference for him came at a cost to Juan Mata and Shinji Kagawa. United remained trapped in Moyes’ tactical straitjacket, playing 4-4-1-1, with Rooney emblematic of a side that had been quicker, better and more exciting in previous years.
Louis van Gaal admitted he granted Rooney “privileges” in selection, a brand of favouritism that did neither man any favours. Rooney seemed a blunt spearhead when leading the line. United’s league goal tally dropped to 49, a 27-season low, in 2015-16, when Van Gaal had installed the Englishman as his preferred striker, and would have been lower still but for Marcus Rashford’s emergence.
Van Gaal reacted by crowbarring Rooney into the midfield. Roy Hodgson took the same approach when it became apparent Harry Kane was England’s premier centre-forward. The 70-year-old was astonished when polling journalists before Euro 2016 to discover the majority would not have picked Rooney in the starting 11. Hodgson did, and the fourth estate appeared vindicated when his skipper was dismal in the embarrassing exit to Iceland.
Sam Allardyce dodged a decision and, partly out of an absence of alternatives, kept him as captain but admitted after his sole game in charge, against Slovakia: “Wayne played wherever he wanted.” It was a comment Allardyce tried to qualify, but it left the wrong impression: that Rooney was too big a personality, too famous a player, to be judged by normal standards.
It is wrong to say each, or indeed any, of that ill-fated quartet was sacked because of Rooney. Nevertheless, the warning signs were there for Koeman. The trend in Rooney’s latter years is that managers have struggled to accommodate him, both tactically and in terms of combinations of personnel. Rooney’s slowness means others need to provide the pace. He no longer has the dynamism to occupy the wider roles in a way he once did with such determination for Ferguson. He has neither the speed nor the size many want in a lone striker. If he plays as a No. 10, a side often effectively only has two central midfielders. Rooney has a genuine team ethic, but finding a team and a position to suit him is ever harder.
And Koeman has tried. He has used Rooney off either flank, as a No. 10, as one of two strikers and as a lone front man. He has also dropped Rooney. None has been a truly winning formula. Faulting Rooney alone would ignore issues of Koeman’s strange selections, Everton’s confused recruitment and the shortcomings of a squad given a £144 million makeover.
His decisions have been complicated by the accumulation of No. 10s. It would have been altogether simpler if Koeman had only signed Gylfi Sigurdsson and had built the team around the Icelander he wanted so much he committed £45 million to him, rather than shoehorning him and Rooney into the same side. It has been an uneasy compromise in an unsuccessful side.
Everton, like United and England before them, have come to reflect Rooney’s shortcomings. Koeman, like four other managers before him, is facing the question of what to do with a man who has sometimes seemed picked because of his past deeds, not his current contributions. Moyes, Van Gaal, Hodgson and Allardyce struggled for answers. Koeman threatens to become part of an infamous five jinxed by a declining Rooney.