There was a begrudging acceptance from Wayne Rooney that it wasn't his night against West Ham being replaced by a man 13 years his senior that allowed the rest of the team to get on with piling on the pressure.
Having received plaudits for his performance in midfield against Stoke last week it may seem gun-ho to point to his performance against the East Londoners as a sign that he may be shown the door this summer, but Ferguson has never been shy of shifting players on, for the benefit of the team.
Rooney's statistical output this season is good, 16 goals and 12 assists in 31 appearances is a pretty decent return. Especially as the introduction of Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa have meant he has been shoehorned into various positions often where his talent flickers without ever really shining at its brightest. But he has been prone to bouts of inconsistency and anonymous displays.
On his day, he can probably play anywhere on a football pitch and impress, but his battles are psychological. His motivations for playing at his best, or even offering the "old Rooney" are difficult to decipher, the process of catharsis has seen him produce the spectacular but only after his internal struggles have led to near implosion. As much as you could argue that Ferguson tamed Rooney, making him a team player rather than unleashing the potentially brightest of stars in a cosmos where two others illuminate without competition, his own reluctance to assume the mantle for himself as the other two did suggests a structural flaw at his core.
There are niggling issues when Rooney is allowed to sit in the front seat, his best goal scoring seasons, last season and the 09-10 season with 34 each, yielded none of the top trophies. Both of which, despite the stats, were arguably some of his poorer footballing showings. Turning from combative, insatiable forward to poacher, meant he dropped other aspects of his game, namely his touch, creativity and work rate to channel his talent on simply putting the ball in the back of the net. It can be easily justified that he was left with no choice, that he brought average teams as close as they could to clutching silverware that otherwise would be completely out of sight. In that sense it would seem harsh to condemn him to exile while others, less talented but unsurprisingly so, contribute what they can weather that be enough is rarely a damning indictment. Expectation, as you could have predicted when he first burst onto the scene, may be is ultimate downfall.
His own expectations play a part too, his clamour for talent more aligned with his has seen players of significant technical ability brought in, who at times only exacerbate rather than encourage him out of his slack play with the ball at his feet.
Against West Ham he was given the opportunity to play in perhaps his favorite role, just behind the main striker. It did not work on this occasion, his touch and movement was cumbersome and lackluster. At one point in the first half, strutting at a canter he tried to take the ball past two oncoming players almost from a standing start. He must have temporarily forgotten what a difference being in prime physical shape can do in those moments. There was great puffing of the cheeks, laboring back and forth came with an air of frustration at being unable to climb above the mediocrity of his teams performance. He sat deeper in an attempt to assert himself but these were no Stoke lookalikes. Again flickers of brilliance shone through, early in the second half a perfectly flighted ball over the Hammers defence fell sumptuously for van Persie, had he buried the chance or Jones been able to bundle in the square header back it may be a different story. But while not much could be done to prevent Mohamed Diame swinging a delightful effort round De Gea, seeing Rooney flat footed and unresponsive to the big midfielder's movement would have irked some.
With Shinji Kagawa smoothly caressing his way into Sir Alex's consciousness with neat, delicate touches, a quaint 'shimmji' to set up the first and the swiftest of turns in order to inadvertently set up the second makes him a strong contender for that central position in-between the lines.
The new jewel in the crown having scored his 25th goal in United colours may have been on a barren run that would make even Andy Carroll blush but he has been the difference in the title race this season. Robin van Persie's eagerness to convert his lofty talents into the acquisition of silverware is his motivator and for the first half of the season his personal quest gave United much needed impetus as Rooney flapped and floundered.
A lack of purpose has maybe befallen Rooney, even a lack of belonging combining injuries, new players and the fact that the title is all but sealed may signify that United don't need him to win the top prizes. After his performance at the Bernabeu in the Champions League and subsequent lack of inclusion in the starting line-up for the return leg would suggest, United's cohesion as a unit seemed stronger when he wasn't there.
These last few remaining matches should represent a brilliant opportunity to forge a cast iron position behind the main striker. Which he can still do. But he may be more inclined to coast, rather than exert. Day dreaming of a summer spent drinking beer in the sun with a record 20th league title medal to add to his other four sounds harmonic for most especially without the unwanted pressure of putting on an England shirt.
The Rooney complex is an unwanted conundrum for Ferguson who will surely bolster midfield in the summer with an exodus predicted. A specialist central midfielder would more than likely only show Rooney up as being an occasional imitator rather than the real deal.
If Rooney doesn't stake his claim for a starting berth further forward it wouldn't be outlandish to suggest that now is the time, for him as much as the team, given his age and subsequent value to continue the process of finding himself in different colours.
The 'what if' however will haunt Ferguson more than any other if this regressive star reignites and shows us the player most thought cosigned to peter out with a whimper.Suggest a correction