It's strange to need rest a game into the season. But as shopworn as Wayne Rooney has looked lately, in a vacuum, he'd be riding pine on Sunday at Fulham.
And why not—when at least two of United's other premier strikers appear fresher, and are firmly in better individual form?
But United manager Alex Ferguson's reliance on the storied number nine is more likely to see him start without scoring, than give him well-needed rest on the bench as a sharper Berbatov and Hernandez pair interplay without him.
If the last several months have proved anything, it's that Wayne Rooney is not playing good football. He looks physically and mentally drained, and you can hardly blame him.
His touch was very heavy in every lamentable performance this summer with England, and his two recent appearances for Man United since have not been admirable.
As I've written before, his maturation as a player is possibly stunted by gross attention, hype, and wish-fulfillment. He wouldn't be the first young assumed superstar to become conflicted, frustrated, or complacent.
But last season perhaps Rooney provided some empirical evidence to support his class, and fulfil his hype, scoring 26 goals in 32 games.
Without getting into the quality of his goals, or more importantly, the quality and consistency of his play last season, unfortunately, starting 32 games and resting only three times contributes now to his own overburden.
During one of those starts, last March against Bayern Munich, Rooney injured his ankle and was feared out for 2-4 weeks: His manager had him in there next week as United crashed out of the competition.
As soon as the club season finished in May, he began starting for England in World Cup warm-ups and ultimately, as everyone knows, in the Cup itself.
Still seeming slightly injured, with the weight of his nation and beyond on his shoulders, he played really, really bad—like many of his teammates—as England was, once again, rudely awakened from a dream too early.
Taxation and exhaustion would be problems for any player mercifully allowed three weeks rest and recovery after a full year of complete physical and mental investment.
This is amplified for Rooney, as he bore excessive pressure from without to perform like a superhero.
And now, worn and grumpy, he'll likely suffer from his club manager's intractable inclination for starting him regardless.
The great shoehorning
There's a good question somewhere why Alex Ferguson considers Rooney a staple in his starting eleven.
Of course, Rooney gives good cause, generally. Uniquely, he is a forward that tracks back readily, ideal for his manager's dirtiest vice: a sole-striker situation, the 4-5-1.
And in-form, "Wazza" is one of the better strikers in England and perhaps Europe regardless of partner. Also uniquely, though, off-form, he becomes very average and sometimes simply just poor.
At 24, he's still young, but he's a fairly old 24. Rooney started consistent top-flight football at 17. He sort of plays like he's old, too, rarely, if ever, adding new skills to his repetoire, on evidence. He still handles the ball in the exact same manner as he did at 17, but now without the abandon, and he still heavily favors his right foot, something opposing defenders have long-since realized.
Regardless of his natural inconsistency, or his understandable and expected limitations, a knackered player is usually not a useful player. And playing him more only makes it worse. As off-form as Rooney is now, he might as well be off the field. And he should be.
But his manager will continue to play him, either from a skewed perception of his current footballing worth, or as a continuing ode to the media, shareholders, chest-thumping supporters and millions of casual fans, perpetuating Brand Rooney, whether it's quality is reflected on the playing field.
The reputation that largely sells all those jerseys is done no favors, though, when the frustrated, obviously tired Rooney plays poorly for United. Playing poorly is all he's done lately—having not scored since March for club or country—and the trend is likely to continue without rest for his overburdened body and mind.
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Both Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez have proved to be in better shape and in better form, here, at the beginning of the 2010-2011 season.
The Mexican, Hernandez, at 22, is basically the Mexican equivalent to Rooney. Hugely popular in his homeland, he is a striker who utilizes pace, runs behind the defense, and adept finishing from his repertoire.
All being said, he does all those things, at least right now, better than Rooney. In fact, Javier Hernandez may just be better than Rooney, period. But it'll take some time and experience before that idea is either proven true or accepted globally.
This raises an interesting idea. How long must a player perform better than another before people accept he's better? A few games? A full season? Hernandez has already shown to be quicker than Rooney, and ultimately, I think he will prove to be a better finisher and a better striker.
Berbatov, who is also in good form, benefited from a summer-long rest since Bulgaria didn't qualify for the World Cup.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but United's most maligned striker is actually the staple in any forward pairing. Hernandez and Rooney are similar in style and stature; Berbatov is required to win the headers, drop a little deeper, and link the midfield to attack, while one of the other two burst through on runs.
He's very capable in the role. The Bulgarian, hardly consistent himself, always retains the penchant for sliding through balls to willing forward runners—his ideal partners. He is also inarguably the most gifted ball-retainer throughout the side, benefiting more from guile and balance than brute strength to hold the ball as his team transitions.
Unfortunately, as Hernandez continues to perform and justifiably earn acclaim, it'll probably be Berbatov who's sacrificed for him, if Ferguson's tendencies continue. The gaffer showed last year that he is extremely hesitant to rest Rooney even during times of malform or visible exhaustion.
As Fulham visit Old Trafford Sunday, with Hernandez inspiring imaginations each time he plays, and Berbatov rested, healthy, and generally in form, the time is now to rest Wayne Rooney, if only so he may find his own form sooner than later as another long season unfolds.
Even though Rooney is generally overrated across a world-wide fanbase, a rested, mentally-healthy version of him is still very integral to United's success going forward.
But his ability to remain a top-20 European striker is hampered by constant, fallible expectation he always play, and play like he already belongs in the top three.