Wayne Rooney's Manchester United role continues to confound fans
When Darren Fletcher joined West Bromwich Albion on transfer deadline day last week, Manchester United's dressing room lost yet another of its central characters.
Since May 2013, when Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager, gone are Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand who, before games and training, used to flick a football to each other and display levels of skill that astounded their coaches.
Gone, too, is Ryan Giggs, Scholes' regular partner for the driest and wittiest humour. The pair set the tone at training and sucked people into a winning environment.
Patrice Evra, a hugely influential dressing-room figure, left last year, as did Nemanja Vidic. Also departed are Fletcher's fellow youth-team graduates Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, as well as Anderson, Javier Hernandez, Nani and Shinji Kagawa.
Departures are normal in football and Louis van Gaal may yet be proved right in clearing out so many players, but with all these losses in such a short space of time, Manchester United have lost something of what made them Manchester United.
One of the big characters, who has remained, is Wayne Rooney.
The 29-year-old is a very popular team captain. He has matured from the shy teenager who joined the club in 2004 to a confident lad who does his best to help every player. He understands that people look up to him, that he can influence them and has noticed that not every player responds to the same type of humour. He's had his ups and downs, but he's an excellent United captain.
Rooney was also United's best player last season, one of the few bright spots in a dreadful term. As his teammates argued and undermined, Rooney was the standout, which was quite a turnaround given his position at the start of the season when insiders expected him to leave for Chelsea and many United fans wanted him gone.
He finished as top scorer with 19 goals, a total he is unlikely to match this campaign. Deployed in a far deeper role, Rooney has eight goals so far and, six months into the season, not a single United player is in double figures (Robin van Persie, with nine, is the top scorer). No European football has reduced scoring opportunities further, with just 28 games played so far this season.
Manchester City have played 35 games and have Sergio Aguero as their leading scorer with 19, while Chelsea (37 matches) boast Diego Costa on 17. Meanwhile, with 22 goals, Harry Kane leads Europa League participants Tottenham, who have played 40 times. How United fans watch with envy as Spurs supporters revel in a successful homegrown player, "one of their own."
Rooney should be up there with the best of them. Instead, he's being used a midfielder and not even an attacking one. When he wasn't wide and barely influencing Sunday's game at West Ham -- the latest mediocre United performance -- he looked like a defensive midfielder. There was lots of work rate, but little inspiration.
Rooney has had no issue with being played in different positions and Van Gaal has changed players' positions before, most notably at Ajax with the likes of Edgar Davids.
The manager is more knowledgeable than most of those making judgments, but it still seems odd that one of football's best finishers is being put into positions where he can't finish.
Maybe Van Gaal was expecting a repeat of Rooney's goal last season at Upton Park from close to the halfway line? Rooney managed one shot in Sunday's draw against a West Ham side with injuries to several key players.
I spoke to Gary Neville recently about United's No. 10.
"I'd put Wayne Rooney up front with Cristiano Ronaldo in my all-time XI of Manchester United players I played with," Neville said. "Above [Eric] Cantona, [Mark] Hughes, [Dwight] Yorke and [Andy] Cole. All great strikers, but Wayne has got qualities from all of those players. He's those four players wrapped in one."
So why isn't he being played as a striker? "Radamel Falcao, Angel Di Maria and Robin van Persie" is the obvious answer. All are first-class forwards; all are having economy-class seasons.
Rooney, who is yet to score in 2015, has been the fall guy, the player good enough to play anywhere, including in goal. What a waste of a great finisher. The sight of him hitting crosses to target man Marouane Fellaini in the Cambridge game last week was bizarre, but United could afford some experimentation at home to a fourth-tier side.
MANCHESTER UNITED LATEST
- Mitten: Complexities of the transfer market
- Marshall: Chicharito must make the right move
- Real target De Gea should be 'happy' - Mata
- Watch: Van Gaal must make statement buys
- Pogba was ready for United in 2012 - Henry
- United 'paid a lot' for Depay - Koeman
- Mitten: Mixed feelings over Falcao move
With only a third of this season remaining, Manchester United's current lineup, with more draws -- eight -- than any team in the top half of the table, just doesn't look like a Manchester United side.
There may be an overly romanticised vision of what United should be and there have been plenty of seasons when they haven't come close to being football's premier attacking side.
Included in that list are the last two years under Sir Alex Ferguson's winning machine, but it's odd that the current team, which boasts so much attacking talent, provides so little entertainment.
Maybe they'll all click together, maybe they deserve time to do so. The priority remains a top-four finish, European football and stability while the playing personnel undergoes an enormous restructuring. It's true that cautious United have now lost one in 17, but it's so, so dull.
United fans are being patient and supportive, as they were last season under David Moyes' management. Three days after another immaculately observed anniversary for the Munich air disaster, in which Van Gaal was at Old Trafford to lay a wreath and 50 fans travelled to a snowbound Munich, the 2,400 away fans at West Ham were singing "We'll never die" as Sunday's game clicked into time added on.
Some of those who were attracted only to the United that won trophies may shift their affections elsewhere, but the hardcore are sticking tight. However, life under Van Gaal still raises more questions than answers, such as what Rooney's position should be.
"Make no mistake, Wayne's a proven high-quality goal scorer who would do better than one in two if he played as a centre-forward," said Neville of Rooney.
"He's been sacrificed to different positions because of his versatility, but he's still England's best goal scorer and is a huge danger when played in forward positions."
A 20-plus forward or a peripheral midfield workhorse? Is the choice really so difficult for Van Gaal?
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.