One more man gone
October 20, 2010 § 3 Comments
And so a part of the future becomes a part of the past.
Whether or not Rooney plays for United again – and it’s difficult to see how he could, it being one thing to want to leave, quite another to announce you want to leave having spent the season so far markedly underperforming and directing your representatives to engage in nudge-nudge media briefings – is beside the point. The one-two of annoucements from Ferguson and “the player” mean that the jig is well and truly up; barring the most spectacular U-turn since Michael Schumacher remembered he’d left the iron on just before the first bend of the Nürburgring, he’ll be gone in January.
That’s modern football: Where an asset will begin to depreciate sharply in value it must be realised as soon as possible. I wrote a week or so ago that Rooney, over the last six seasons, has been a significant factor in United’s successes – brave, I know, but someone had to say it – and ended by saying that United needed him fit and firing; well, the game done changed. The question becomes, therefore, how can he be replaced?
In Michael Lewis’ excellent Moneyball , Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s find themselves in a position not unlike United’s. One of the previous season’s most effective offensive players – for 2009/10 PFA Player of the Year Rooney, read 2000 MVP Jason Giambi – has departed, and the notion of directly replacing him is prohibitive both in terms of the relative rarity of the player (and it’s not controversial to say that player’s with Rooney’s attributes are few and far between) and the constraints on the team’s purchasing power (for which we can thank our very favourite Yanqui bloodsuckers).
Beane and his front office staff realised that what they were trying to replace was not the player, as such, but the effect of the player: what his presence gives to the team. And they were then able to diagnose that the impending hit on the team’s performance by Giambi’s defection could be ameliorated, not necessarily by a like-for-like replacement, but by recognising that as long as the same (or similar) results are achieved, the identity or stature of the personnel isn’t important. Their solution was to aggregate Giambi’s offensive production with two other departing players, and then search for three players who could, by their combined offensive qualities, reproduce that aggregate. A neat evasion of the requirement to purchase a superstar to fill a superstar’s boots.
United underwent a similar process last season. Faced with the need to replace the outgoing Cristiano Ronaldo, the solution was not to try and find another player capable of reproducing his phenomenal goal return. Instead, United bought Luis Anotonio Valencia, and changed the playing style; the loose attacking shapes that Ronaldo thrived in were replaced by more structured wingplay. Valencia and Nani rose to the challenge of creating the goals, Rooney to the challenge of scoring them. Defenders, unused to having to deal with proper wingers pinging in proper crosses, started bunting the ball into their own net. And United, despite losing their best player from the preceding title-winning seasons, finished only one point off the top.
By shifting the team, the absence of any player can be compensated for without necessarily needing to find an analogue for that player. Indeed, given Rooney’s complete lack of interest, effort or achievement this season, you might argue that such a team is already taking shape; certainly United’s problems this term have been concentrated up the other end of the pitch. Replacing Rooney, and pretty soon Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, and like as not Rio Ferdinand and Edwin van der Sar will not be impossible; there is enough young, raw talent within the squad to keep United competitive and (despite Ferguson’s earlier insistences) there is value in the market, even for purses as constrained as the Glazers. Indeed, the threat of a dip in performance may even free up some cash.
The bigger question is whether or not Ferguson wants to. Without wanting to dive too far into cod-psychological expositions on his demeanour at that press conference, it was certainly unusual to see him admit first of all that “the player” wanted to leave, and then follow it up with a statement that the offer remained on the table. But more than that: the press conference was perhaps the first time it’s really hit home just how old United’s manager is. With every passing day a retirement of fine wine and horseracing gets closer. This a man, remember, who has spoken of his horror at witnessing Jock Stein’s death in the dugout.
Ferguson’s recalling of the days when players were closer to their parents than their agents was a lament for a bygone age. A time when asset depreciation wasn’t the guiding force behind club management; when fans didn’t have to wrestle with the intricacies of leveraged buyouts; when the game wasn’t a giant pinata swinging gently above a slavering horde of rich men, drunk with venal lust. It doesn’t matter whether those halcyon days ever truly existed – nostalgia is a delusional illness, albeit usually a mild one – the sense is that Rooney is more than just an ingrate and a shit. He is a symptom of the further curdling of the soul of football.
Ferguson has clashed with players before: he’s been angry; he’s been decisive; he’s been quite breathtakingly vicious. Here, for the first time, the man who’s been in charge of United since before your correspondent could read was publicly sad. There will come a time when Ferguson, who has ripped apart more great teams that most managers have ever built, will step back, leaving the next challenge for another man; all United fans know this. But to watch him talk to the cameras on Tuesday was to come face to face with the prospect. Because compared with replacing Ferguson, finding a way to win without Rooney is going to be as easy as changing a pair of socks.