On the day Jose Mourinho held a tentative pillow over Wayne Rooney's Manchester United career without smothering it completely, Gary Neville spoke with a disarming softness as if trying to convince an elderly relative perhaps now is the right time to go into a home.
Killing with kindness is an accusation often levelled at those paid to deliver hard verdicts. No player splits opinion between the public and pundits like Rooney. The more he is defended by ex pros, often Manchester United alumni, the angrier his critics get. It's as if they are convinced he has them on some kind of retainer.
This "power" he supposedly holds in the game is often referred to without specifics being given, which would make inferred talk of the dark arts nothing more than hokum were it not for the fact he once went toe-to-toe with Sir Alex Ferguson and came out with a new contract. Other players came out from similar battles with less toes than they went in with.
Neville is no ordinary pundit, as Rooney well knows. Neither fawning nor vindictive—the twin curses of the player-turned-talking head—his transformation from national irritant to (minor) national treasure is testimony to the cogency of his arguments.
"He can still have a good career at this club—it's not the end of Wayne Rooney today, it's just a different part of his career, and if he accepts that, it can be equally as enjoyable," was how Neville called it on Sky Sports (via Eurosport's Tom Adams) after watching Manchester United beat Leicester City 4-1 at Old Trafford sans Rooney for all but 11 minutes.
Rooney may balk at Neville's assessment, but he won't dismiss it. He'll carry it around with him like a doctor's appointment, a persistent reminder there are few things as unnerving as the unknown.
While Robbie Savage picks his words about as carefully as most people choose which slice of bread to toast from a full loaf, Neville is the exact opposite. He will not have warned Rooney things are changing without due consideration, nor was he alone in sensing this could prove a watershed moment for both club and player.
Now Mourinho has dropped him, it won't be half as difficult next time. The first cut is always the deepest. This was only the third time in 119 league games Rooney started on the bench. It won't be the last time this season. There is no surer bet than that.
In a performance as emphatic as the majority have been anaemic in the post-Ferguson years, Rooney was an onlooker. For all Mourinho's attempts to underplay things both pre- and post-match, if indeed repeated use of "fast" and "young" to explain the motivation behind Rooney's absence was designed to do such a thing, it felt like something seismic. Mourinho speaks slowly because, like Neville, he thinks about what he is saying.
"The question I knew would be Rooney but the question should be why [Jesse] Lingard and [Marcus] Rashford," he said in his pre-match interview with Sky Sports (via the Telegraph). "Because they are quick, the way they stretch the game and when our main striker is Zlatan we need fast people to surround him."
Let's run that back. While it makes perfect sense not to pair a tortoise with a tortoise up front, where exactly does that leave Rooney? Ibrahimovic has played every minute of United's six Premier League games so far.
What Mourinho should have said is: "When Given our main striker is Zlatan we need fast people to surround him."
I suspect he knew what he was saying well enough; along with the how it would be interpreted. Whichever way you choose to take Mourinho's words, there's an unmistakable admission Rooney and Ibrahimovic are not suited as a pair. It's a view shared by a majority, hardly contentious even, but it's a position the player has never previously found himself in. How he responds could be one of the more fascinating subplots of the season.
The interesting thing now is not to discuss how he is no longer the player he once was, but to explore the player he might yet become.
When fit, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will vie for the wide places with Rashford and Lingard, leaving Rooney to duke it out with Mata to play in behind Ibrahimovic. Rooney can at least draw a modicum of consolation from Mata's mini-renaissance, even if it is at his expense.
The Spaniard has spent so much time in the cold under Mourinho over the course of his career, it's said he's had to miss reserve games through frostbite on occasion. He's living proof fortunes can change under the Portuguese, even if his own future is far from certain.
When Neville proffered Rooney might even get to "go to Dubai in October" for a little sun, one sensed he was only half joking. A month away from his 31st birthday, it seems premature to talk of the winter of Rooney's career, until you consider in 14 years of physical and mental toil he has clocked up well over 700 games for club and country. His fiercest critics would argue he's been in his autumnal phase since circa-2012. As might Ferguson, if it is they are not one and the same.
Speaking from experience when the ravages of time altered his own role at Old Trafford, while referencing similar reductions in playing time for Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs from being automatic picks to cherry-picked for around half of United's games, Neville urged his former team-mate to use this enforced absence as an opportunity to step back and take stock of his career.
"There will come a point where he will have to make that decision of either playing every week or coming to that point in his career where he may come out of the team one week, then go back in and adapt to that type of position," said Neville, per Sky Sports.
It is, after all, a career made up of enough soaring peaks to ensure every disappointment hereon in need not foster a descent into the troughs of despair. Just a cursory glance at his list of honours should allow Rooney to take solace in a lovely line from the T.S. Eliot poem, The Waste Land: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins."
It is no man's land Rooney will fear the most.
Either that or he'll stick two fingers up to his detractors and draw inspiration from the writer Robert A. Heinlein, who once advised: "Never tease an old dog; he might have one bite left."
Neville has urged Rooney to reinvent himself, just as Scholes and Giggs did before him. Giggs moved inside and Scholes dropped deeper. Rooney is smarter than many give him credit for. He will have observed how both had to adapt to stay relevant, or at the very least useful to their manager. Public pronouncements of a desire to play in midfield over the summer were acts of self-preservation, copy and pasted from the best.
Mourinho was still putting up pictures of himself in his new office when he told the press Rooney was a No. 10, or a striker, and nothing in-between. He's too obsessed with winning to deliberately give Rooney just enough rope to hang himself. However, it's fair to say no goals or assists from a forward, in a run of three consecutive defeats, meant dropping him on Saturday was no longer the minefield it might have been.
While Pep Guardiola punctured political footballs at Manchester City over the summer without a second thought, it seems Mourinho is being a little more circumspect with his own.
It's hard to think of a single player since Paul Gascoigne—and perhaps he only really experienced it at full throttle between Italia '90 and Euro '96—who has elicited even half the scrutiny Rooney has endured pretty much on a weekly basis since that goal as a 16-year-old against Arsenal in 2002.
No wonder he always looks knackered, he's English football's Princess Diana. He fascinates the broadsheets and tabloids in equal measures, and there is an argument he is somehow simultaneously the most overrated and underrated player in the history of the sport in this country.
On Saturday, from his ringside view on the substitutes' bench, Rooney was like an ex-husband invited to the wedding of a former wife. Aware that as many eyes would be on him as the bride, he did a more than passable impersonation of someone glad a one-time flame had moved on and found happiness. He even threw a little confetti, with a clenched fist greeting each goal that went it—all four of them. Had he cut in to ask the groom for one last dance with his ex-wife, it’s unlikely Ibrahimovic would have minded.
It's safe to say Rooney's team of defence lawyers will be billing him for overtime on Monday morning. They'll claim the prosecution's case is made up of circumstantial evidence given three of United's four goals came from set pieces and were so charitable the Football Association is investigating claims Bob Geldof was in goal for Leicester.
Ander Herrera's intelligence and punchy aggression at the base of United's midfield in place of the cloddish Marouane Fellaini could also be deemed equally as pertinent to the game's outcome as Rooney's absence.
On paper, though—where to be fair the game isn't played, as Antonio Conte pointed out—it's a cut and dry case. Not since beating Arsenal 6-1 in February 2001 had United established a four-goal half-time lead in the Premier League. In three consecutive defeats going into the game, United had been as bad as anything seen under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.
When things are laboured, invariably it is Rooney deemed to be the cause. In defeat his deeper and deeper meanderings become a potent symbol of a club that has lost its direction.
Against Leicester things could not have been more different. It was like a fat man in a circus hall of mirrors, seeing himself for the first time shorn of a ring of excess flesh around his midriff. Lean and mean. More often than not, there is no going back when you have seen the light.
Forget nauseating piffle about players being happy just so long as the team wins. A happy benched player is a goalkeeper who has made a career out of never getting his gloves dirty.
Rooney would have enjoyed watching Ibrahimovic bully Robert Huth and Wes Morgan about as much as having thin strips of wood pushed under his fingernails. As for Mata putting in a No. 10 performance as good as he has ever done in a United shirt and scoring a world-class goal, nothing less than pure torture.
And then there's Rashford, "The Kid" as Mourinho has taken to affectionately call him, bagging a 12th goal on his 25th appearance. Not that the gods can be cruel, but that's exactly the same scoring rate as Rooney managed in his first 25 games for United.
Paul Pogba's goal and much improved display has been credited in no small part to the fact Rooney wasn't around to get in the way. Even the bloody left-back had it in for him, with Daley Blind's pinpoint deliveries from corners, deputising as he was for Rooney on set pieces, resulting in three goals.
Had Mike Dean pulled off his mask at full-time to reveal he was in fact Johnny Knoxville (American readers) or Jeremy Beadle (British readers) playing an elaborate prank on Rooney, it would have all made perfect sense.
Given Leicester shaded the opening 20 minutes or so before Chris Smalling marked being captain (ahem) for the day with the game's opening goal, and the second half was exactly what everyone expected it to be given the half-time score, it would be hard to hail it a complete performance on United's part.
Yet at the same time there was a lovely rhythm and cadence to their play that has sorely been missed. Passes were exchanged in close quarters, with a previous one-paced attacking threat replaced with a fluidity across United's front players that flummoxed an admittedly dreadful Leicester side on the day.
The champions have now conceded four to United, Liverpool and Chelsea. In the league they have lost three of six matches, the same number as they did in the whole of last season.
With Rashford and Lingard persistently stretching Leicester's pedestrian-to-the-point-of-looking-geriatric back four, Ibrahimovic, when dropping deep into the space Rooney usually occupies, knew he would always have runners in front of him. All afternoon United played off him, with the Swede a peacock in body armor as Leicester's centre-halves found him as strong as he was smart.
At one point he pole-axed Huth in a challenge before proceeding to look down at the German with the disdain one might usually reserve for finding a drunk similarly positioned on a front lawn.
Mata was equally impressive in becoming the first United player this season to score and assist in the same game. Rather than clog up the middle of the field, he was happy to pull wide and give licence to Pogba to drive into the space he vacated. In tandem both enjoyed the best games they have played this season.
Further food for thought is the eight successful passes Mata played to Ibrahimovic, the highest Rooney has managed this season is two. Similarly, the link-up between Ibrahimovic and Pogba showed real promise, with a growing sense there's a real desire on the former's part to ensure he has an able apprentice to entrust his crown to when he calls it a day.
Mata's picture-book goal culminated in a sweeping finish after a move he orchestrated from start to end that involved every single one of United's outfield players.
Rooney was not among them. It may be some time before he is. At least in games not played on a Thursday evening.
All stats provided by WhoScored.com unless otherwise stated