At the end of 2015, it looked as if the end might be in store for Wayne Rooney's Manchester United career. He had scored just six Premier League goals in the calendar year and was enduring his worst patch of form for some time—his first assist for the season did not come until 19 December against Norwich, for example.
Then came January 2016 and "new year, new Roo" was in effect. He scored seven goals and provided three assists in the nine games he played before he succumbed to injury.
His defenders were able to point to this as evidence that he still had an important part to play at United, that the notion he was finished was greatly overstated. And there is some justification to that—after all, it was the most fruitful period any of Louis van Gaal's strikers have enjoyed this season.
However, the injury that followed the purple patch and the long dry spell that went before offers plenty of evidence that United should be looking at the post-Rooney future sooner rather than later.
Indeed there is an argument to suggest a new manager would be wise to move Rooney on as soon as this summer and fully embrace the rebuilding process rather than holding on to this particular part of United's legacy.
Van Gaal, of course, made a decision on Rooney within his first few weeks at the club—United's No. 10 would be his captain and thus would play when fit. It is a decision he has stuck with, even when it has meant displacing Juan Mata from No. 10, Anthony Martial from No. 9 or playing Rooney in a midfield role for which he is patently unsuitable.
Indeed, it is notable that Rooney has not played in deep-lying midfield for more than very brief periods this season, in spite of playing several times there last season. This is central to the notion that his career at United will not have a long tail.
It has long been suggested the England captain could prolong his career by moving into a deeper-lying role as he ages. In September 2015, David Moyes told BBC Radio 5 Live (h/t ESPN FC):
I think that while he is probably England's best striker at the moment he has to continue playing as a striker and scoring goals.
But I could genuinely see Wayne being a midfield player for a year or two after that -- I think he has got that ability when his legs run out a bit.
He is such a good footballer and passer of the ball that he could play in other positions and it could be that he steps back [positionally] in time.
I think when you get older, you have to adapt your play.
Ryan Giggs was a prime example. He got to a certain age and then he dropped into midfield a lot more and played that central role.
I think Wayne will do the same. He's an out-and-out goalscorer, but I think at the end of the day with Wayne, he's proved he can step into the midfield and play.
If you're comfortable on the ball, as players such as Wayne and Giggsy are you can do that.
The theory makes sense, but Rooney's relationship with playing in midfield has, in reality, been a complicated one. In October 2012, following a 3-0 win over Newcastle United, he tweeted about how much he was enjoying his shift into midfield:
A year later, following Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement and the speculation that Rooney wanted to leave the club, the player said, per the Guardian: "Everyone at the club knew where I wanted to play [as a striker] and I think that's why I was disappointed. I got told to play in midfield and I didn't want to. I just think there had to come a point when, for my own career, I had to be a bit selfish really."
Ahead of this season, Rooney reiterated the view that centre-forward was his best role, saying, per the Guardian: "My best position – and I have always said it – is as a striker, and the two seasons I have really done that as a lone striker are my two best goalscoring seasons. So hopefully if I play up there again this season then I can score the goals."
Eventually, he did score the goals, though the combination of barren spell and injury will outweigh the purple patch when the balance of the season is considered as a whole.
He has not scored enough nor turned in enough good performances to suggest United can rely on him as their star striker next season. He has not created enough for his team-mates to suggest they can rely on him to be the key creative fulcrum of the side at No. 10.
And it is not just the player's own preferences that complicate a potential move into midfield but also the evidence of his performances there. They do not necessarily bear out the notion that it will be a natural fit for him.
Rooney has always been a bursty player, capable of wonderful moments, but he has become increasingly prone to a poor first touch or an ill-judged pass.
Witness his performance against Southampton in January, for example. In the middle of his best form for some time, he turned in a performance wherein he gave the ball away with 25 per cent of his passes, was dispossessed three times—more than anyone else on the pitch—and got none of his three shots on target.
This has a significant opportunity cost when he plays up front, something Van Gaal had to live with for the first half of this season, but the potential cost of those errors is even greater if he plays in midfield. The defensive consequences of a lapse become more serious if those mistakes are made in the heart of the pitch.
Of course, he has given enough to United, both in terms of his career as a whole and his run of good games this season, to suggest Van Gaal or any new manager should keep him around for 2016/17. He is a senior leadership figure at a club that has lost too many leaders in recent times.
Assuming a new manager does arrive, then Rooney's presence could be important behind the scenes.
This is, of course, assuming he is happy to take up a squad role, rather than the guaranteed starting berth he has enjoyed under Van Gaal. A new manager would need the flexibility to drop Rooney if he is underperforming or indeed if better options than him are available in his position.
And the long-term future must surely see him move away from the club. The evidence of the past couple of seasons has been pretty definitive in terms of his ability to perform at a high level on a regular basis—he simply has not been able to do so.
This is in spite of having a manager who has backed him to the hilt and allowed him to play in his preferred position for long spells. Admittedly the team as a whole have been relatively dysfunctional, but Rooney's performance have seemed to be more cause than effect in this particular equation.
Perhaps he will return to something like his best again, perhaps there will be a surprising renaissance—beyond a spell of goalscoring form. If so, then this position could be re-evaluated. For now, though, it seems reasonable to suggest Rooney has one more season at Old Trafford before finding somewhere else to sing his swansong.
Advanced statistics per WhoScored.com.