It's refreshing to watch United win without Rooney or Giggs, if only to be spared the fawning ballyhoo they receive following a game they even only marginally influence.
Such was the case midweek in the Carling Cup against Tottenham, when a youthful United side without the two superstars beat Spurs old-fashionedly, with stout defense, concise passing, and a rampaging midfield, with a dose of class from Berbatov up top.
Though Darron Gibson got all the headlines, more importantly, it was a team performance in a match containing flow, reciprocity, and good spirit, all encouraged by a laisse-faire approach in an excellent showing from referee Mark Clattenburg.
Last weekend, though, the media's two favorite British players were once again forcedly elevated to Pantheon status, glossing over what was otherwise a pretty poor display from the Manchester reds at home to Portsmouth.
A frustratingly tentative United side could have gone into the tunnel at half-time down if not for Pompey's abysmal finishing and Kuszczak's Brobdingnagian goalkeeping.
Almost immediately after the intermission, United scored their only goal from open play to seize and keep the numerical advantage. The best pass of the move was from Fletcher forward to Giggs, who in turn played forward deftly—but simply—to Rooney who finished neatly—but somewhat fortuitously—under the onrushing goalie.
The floodgates were opened. United poured through. When the rainclouds cleared, the scoreboard read 4-1. But the truth was not alone constructed by digits.
The two players who appeared most on the scoresheet at match end—Rooney and Giggs, with four goals and an assist between them—were actually two of the worst players in red, especially for the first half.
Rooney was quiet and unproductive, maundering, producing no inspiration, turning past all of zero defenders. Giggs was misplacing passes left and right, perfunctorily getting the ball stolen from his slight frame and slowing feet, out-swinging corner kicks fruitlessly.
Only Giggs was marginally better in the second half from open play. Pompey were stretched, knackered, and mentally beaten. Then the Welshman produced two good passes which, along with his late free-kick and assist, somehow ended up representing his whole performance.
Lost to selective memory are all the misplaced touches, poor decisions, and lack of physicality that really comprise most of Giggs' forays these days. Lost to the greater good is each instance Rooney can't hold off, turn past, or drive through defenders, drifts completely out of influence, or gets caught offside needlessly.
It's not that good players, on even great days, do everything perfectly. But when they weren't having even a good day, they should be credited as such, without special weight given to either the exceptional few acts of quality, or a serendipitous goal return.
To be fair, whether it's Ryan Giggs or Randy Couture, aging athletes are easy to get behind. But at least in the mixed martial arts world, where discourse is fueled and driven by a youthful Internet community's online forums—not in newspapers or megasites—the latters' real stature is known self-evidently as merely entertaining, not competitively qualitative.
In football, though, a wishful perception recycled and promoted repeatedly becomes reality.
Goal.com editorialized Rooney's performance as such: "His every flick was delightful, shooting exceptional and link-up play effortless. Without the United No. 10, the fires of the comeback would have been impossible to stoke."
Such vivid imagery. The writer added in the player ratings, "[Rooney] finished all his chances superbly and didn't give the Pompey center-backs a moment's rest." Both the elder Welshman and the balding scouser received a nine rating, while players who actually played better, like Kusack, Valencia, Fletcher, and even Scholes, had lesser marks.
You wonder if the writers are sponsored by the FA and England's 2018 World Cup campaign, or just caught up, like most others, in cultivated group-think, consuming and fostering the Rooney brand.
On Match of the Day, the dim Alan Shearer thought Giggs was "absolutely sensational," literally highlighting Giggs' only positive moves on the 90 minutes as justification. Mark Lawrenson incorrectly added "Giggs and Rooney were difficult to play against today" before Gary Linekar obligatorily and needlessly concluded "as they so often are."
It can be easy to get caught up in the hype and romance. But football should be judged where it's played, beneath the layer of hope-fulfillment and emotion, beneath the artificial film of production aesthetics and commentary. It's during those 90 minutes where players' quality is expressed, not in the arbitrary sensationalism written afterwards.
Though Rooney is at times better than most players, he is not yet in the world class, and it appears it never will be without developing his left foot and dribbling.
Giggs is mostly unable to cope or create against midfields better than the mediocre majoity in the incongruous Premier League.
But, just as Rooney and Giggs were cultivated as all-beating heroes last weekend, Gibson took home the crown after belting two wicked goals Tuesday against Spurs.
Several pundits likened him to Roy Keane, apparently solely because of their shared nationaliy, because the United player most emulating Keano on the pitch is actually Scottish, not Irish.
Goal.com correspondingly titled their United-Spurs match report "A Star is Born." It's click-worthy, but really, it's stretching. A following editorial reads "Darron Gibson Could Be the New Frank Lampard at Jose Mourniho's United." Now that's definitely a shameless combination of hyperbole and whimsy.
But now that we're reading, if we want ripped abs in 40 days, we might think about clicking on that banner ad...