Wayne Rooney is currently embroiled in one of the most significant battles of his career—a battle for relevance.
It is an absurd thought, but one which even his staunchest supporters must acknowledge.
He remains one of Manchester United's most talented players and productive attacking threats, and yet he has looked lost at times this season, hauling his disconsolate frame between the lines.
He has been excellent and poor, often transitioning between the two in the space of a couple of games, occasionally within a 90-minute period.
Take his most recent outing for the Red Devils—a game of rugby played against man-mountain Andy Carroll and his West Ham cronies that ended in a stuttering 2-2 draw.
Rooney was an obsolete presence in the match—the far more impressive Shinji Kagawa eventually cutting inside, pushing Rooney from his usual place behind Robin van Persie and out to the left flank, where he was equally ineffective.
The English forward was slated in the media for his performance—one ESPN correspondent opined "This might actually have been Rooney's worst performance for United."
Football fans are fickle beasts—Rooney's defiant, extraordinary performance against Stoke City only three days prior had been swiftly forgotten.
In that Old Trafford encounter, he played the central box-to-box role to near perfection, suggesting that Sir Alex Ferguson need look no further than his own playing staff to resolve a seemingly eternal problem.
So why switch Rooney back into his trequartista/second forward role days later, Sir Alex?
There have been vicious rumours swirling in the media since the Scotsman dropped his formerly indispensable player for the Champions League second leg against Real Madrid in March.
Danny Welbeck's inclusion in his stead suggested that Rooney's name was no longer the first Sir Alex would write on the teamsheet before a game.
His exclusion was a "tactical" one according to opposing coach Jose Mourinho (via ESPN). This should be no more reassuring for the 27-year-old.
When a player of Rooney's quality cannot find his way into the starting lineup for the biggest game of the season for "tactical" reasons, he should be worried.
Naturally, Robin van Persie's arrival in Manchester can be pinpointed as the prominent reason for Rooney's diminished responsibility.
Not only did the Dutchman's signing result in a change of position for his new teammate, it has paid little dividend in the way of chemistry. Rooney and van Persie have not clicked this term—perhaps the most worrying concern for fans of the club heading into what could prove a fascinating summer.
The two cannot play the No.10 and No. 9 roles, respectively, next season if United want to reclaim European glory.
Shinji Kagawa could easily be the playmaking solution—his historic hat trick against Norwich City in March and his most recent performance at the Boleyn Ground on Wednesday are evidence enough to justify Sir Alex's claim that the Japan international "will be far better" next season (via Daily Mail).
If Kagawa is going to be the Red Devils' breakout star of 2013/14, his sophomore term will be spent in the role Rooney has occupied this campaign.
But this does not mean that Wayne Rooney's future lies under the lights of the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
Selling one of the club's most brilliant players would be a sign of weakness, despite his difficulties this season. It would be a transfer move more akin to Arsenal.
The rumours will likely remain splashed across the back pages until the transfer window slams shut on Aug. 31, no matter how often Sir Alex publicly declares the link with Paris Saint-Germain to be a false one (via Simon Rice of The Independent).
Wayne Rooney's future, both immediate and beyond, must lie in the same box-to-box role he was so impressive in against Stoke. He has the potential to be the physical and yet technically creative midfield player the side has been arguably lacking since Owen Hargreaves' descent into injury hell.
With van Persie holding a monopoly up front, Rooney can no longer be the same powerfully raw striker he was in his youth.
Sir Alex admitted he was "brilliant" against Stoke. ESPN writer Richard Jolly wrote that he had made a "compelling case" for a second reinvention in the space of a year. The Scotsman justified his pushing Rooney back into central midfield as a way of boosting his confidence. If this is all it takes to inspire the England linchpin, why not make the switch permanent?
He has been an integral part of the team for 10 years and its most important player for the last four. It is not the right time for him to leave United, nor will it likely be in four more years' time.
Sir Alex has asked a great deal of him this season. It's not often a world-class footballer is asked to switch positions in the peak of his playing career.
Though the experiment has seen United be as dominant in the Premier League as they have for over a decade, it has for the most part failed.
Twelve league goals and nine assists is not a personal failure where Rooney is concerned, but one would expect such numbers from a player of his quality wherever he was deployed on the pitch.
The experiment has been a failure in respect to his and van Persie's floundering on-the-pitch relationship.
There are only five games left in the Red Devils' season—five more opportunities for the fringe players to prove they have a place at Old Trafford, five more for Rooney to be given a decent run of games alongside Michael Carrick in the middle.
If not, a summer of uncertainty may lie ahead.
Sir Alex moved Rooney into central midfield against Stoke to restore his confidence—by restoring him to his typical trequartista role on Wednesday, he was effectively breaking it.
Make no mistake, Rooney is still a highly relevant player at Old Trafford, just not as much as he was 12 months ago.
He must be pushed back to move forward.
What do you think the future holds for Wayne Rooney? Where would you say he plays best?
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