As Louis van Gaal arrives in Manchester, he faces the unenviable task of getting the best out of Wayne Rooney.
Perhaps it is churlish to describe it as unenviable. After all, on his day, Rooney is one of the world's finest players.
He has scored at least 10 league goals in every one of his 10 seasons at United. Last season he was United's top scorer, scoring 17 in the league and adding 10 assists.
However, while his consistency is impressive, caveats exist. There are mitigating factors to consider, but he has only twice scored more than 20 league goals in a season. He has also hurt his relationship with the fans by agitating for a move away from the club on two separate occasions.
The second of those came after he had described the first as the "biggest mistake" of his football career, per talkSPORT (h/t the Independent).
The question of where on the pitch Rooney plays under Van Gaal—and what role he is asked to fulfil there—has no simple answer.
Rooney's "best position" in terms of numerical output is clearly as an out-and-out centre-forward. The aforementioned two 20-goal-plus campaigns came in perhaps the only seasons in his United career where he was clearly the first-choice No. 9.
More often that not he has played further away from the penalty area—shunted around to accommodate Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov, Robin van Persie et al.
Before Kevin Strootman's injury forced the Netherlands' switch to a 5-3-2, it had been rare for Van Gaal to deploy two strikers. Associated for many years with the classic Dutch 4-3-3—which uses one "striker" as part of the front three—Van Gaal also played a 4-2-3-1 at Bayern Munich.
Robin van Persie has been Van Gaal's captain for the Netherlands—and their positive relationship has been clear for all to see. Given that, it is difficult to imagine Rooney usurping Van Persie if there is only one starting berth up front.
If Van Gaal deploys a 4-2-3-1, then Rooney's likeliest role would be as a No. 10, behind Van Persie. There are two key problems with this idea. The first is that Van Gaal is far from guaranteed to set up that way.
The second is that even if he does, Rooney might not be the best choice in the squad to fulfil the role. Juan Mata is a wonderful player, and playing from behind the striker is where he has had his most impact.
It was his best role at Chelsea, and at the tail-end of last season, it was when he played there for United that he started scoring freely. There is an intangible quality of artistry to Mata's No. 10 play that is missing from Rooney's.
Last season the team just seemed to "work better" when Rooney was relieved of his playmaking duties.
Of course, Rooney could be used on the left of a 4-3-3. In 2008, for example, he often played in wider positions to accommodate Ronaldo and Tevez.
However, six years is a long time. It is far from clear that Rooney would be comfortable with being forced out of what he sees as his best position.
Rooney is often linked with a move to a deeper role. Paul Scholes, in his Paddy Power blog during the World Cup said of Rooney:
He’s got all the ability to take over my old position at Manchester United. He has played some games there, but has never gone on an uninterrupted run. Whether he has the discipline to do it, right now I’m not sure.
Scholes' uncertainty is well founded. While Rooney may have the technical skills to be a midfielder, it would require a good deal of learning for him to excel there.
It is also quite possible Rooney would not want to play there. His justification for his second attempt to leave the club was that he did not want to play in midfield. Having previously tweeted about enjoying it, Rooney clearly changed his mind about the idea of taking over from Scholes.
Great win today. Really enjoying my new midfield role. Always involved in the game.— Wayne Rooney (@WayneRooney) October 7, 2012
Hence Van Gaal's task of successfully accommodating Rooney appears unenviable. At No. 9, Van Persie is a better option. At No. 10, Mata makes the team tick over better. Playing Rooney out wide or in midfield exposes his lack of positional discipline and potentially upsets him.
My personal prediction is that Van Gaal will initially set up with Rooney operating either on the left of a 4-3-3 or behind Van Persie in a 4-2-3-1. However, Van Gaal will have less patience for Rooney's mistakes than David Moyes did, and there could well be friction.
It would not at all come as a surprise to see Rooney linked with a move away from the club again. This time, of course, finding a club prepared to match his wages may be a challenge.
The other potential outcome is that Van Gaal re-invigorates Rooney, perhaps adapting a formation to fit him, Van Persie and Mata into the attack together. If he can pull that off, United will be a very significant force again, very quickly.
These are interesting times for the club, and for Wayne Rooney.
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