Roy Curtis; Wayne Rooney's well appears to have run dry
Maybe it’s premature to declare definitively that the reel is run, that the best of Wayne Rooney is a fading speck in the rear-view mirror.
But, on Friday night, with the Manchester United captain contributing not so much as a whisper to the Villa Park conversation, the flame had run so low that it seemed for all the world like the embers of a rapidly-ebbing Scouse wildfire.
Louis Van Gaal’s remodelled crew have taken six points from six without conceding a goal, a significant upgrade on 12 months ago.
And yet they have hardly been a blood red comet blazing across the August sky.
A portrait of underwhelming efficiency, United have accumulated just three shots on target in three hours; more Cliff Thorburn than Ronnie O’Sullivan, LVG has transformed (or reduced) the Rocketmen to grinders.
The signature of George Graham’s Dutch cousin is everywhere, down to a brace of wake-me-when-its-time-to-go 1-0s: The house of Cantona, Best, Ronaldo and Giggs has become a theatre of thrift.
And Rooney, their creative wellspring, the fountainhead from whom Van Gaal expects a 25-goal spurt, appears to have run utterly dry.
Wayne has known thin streaks of form, the landscape of his celebrated career is dimpled with alarming canyons of mediocrity, but it is not just the more hysterical members of the United family who fear this time he has tumbled into the inescapable valley of the doomed.
For the second time in a week on Friday, the Englishman scarcely threw a punch.
He was observer rather than participant, like Thierry Henry in that Sky promo: there yet not really there.
Rooney – the tip of Van Gaal’s 4-3-2-1 arrow – did not touch the ball in Brad Guzan’s penalty area until injury time; his contributions against Spurs and Villa have scarcely exceeded that of the absent goalkeeping rebel David de Gea.
He has not scored in 14 away games and the disclaimer about being deployed far away from the killing zone in midfield is no longer available.
Van Gaal must be unsure whether to take out his prayer mat – and petition for a return of his centre-forward’s absent vitality – or his cheque-book.
Rooney appears so far off course, such a reduced figure that even a punt on him scoring the 20 goals required to ease past Bobby Charlton as the club’s all-time leading scorer would seem like a charitable donation to the odds-layers.
Though he is hardly a greybeard – he doesn’t turn 30 until October, eight months after his old partner-in-destruction Cristiano Ronaldo reached that milestone – Rooney’s back is bent by the freight of a life lived in the fastest of fast lanes.
To watch a player – who has so often carried United to the stars – reduced to faltering steps was to remember that he has been 14 seasons in the arena, to be reminded, too, that his inclinations were never monastic.
That is unless it was to revisit the excesses of Friar Tuck.
At work and play, Rooney pushed the pedal to the floor; now all the mounting evidence insists that the orange light is blinking furiously; if form is a reliable fuel gauge, then the Wazza mobile is running on fumes.
So bereft, so marginal has been the old talisman that it can only be reputation (or lack of a remotely credible centre-forward alternative) insulating him against the arctic reality of eviction from Van Gaal’s preferred XI. His is the most alarming demise since, well, the fear and loathing days of D. Moyes.
When, during the summer recess, the United superintendent made it clear that Old Trafford had become a cold house for Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao, it seemed like the most emphatic declaration of faith in Rooney.
Each minute that passes without a moment of attacking divinity – and yes, only two games have been played yet still the alarm bells are already squealing out a cacophony of doom – further tests Van Gaal’s conviction.
If the new Manchester model army look less honeycombed with defensive cavities, they hardly resemble legitimate title contenders.
The absence of flair, the pedestrian tempo, the lack of authentic game changers (Adnan Januzaj has his supporters, but needs to offer far more than a goal every 1200 minutes) form a herd of stampeding elephants in the room.
To be seduced by the league table would be to forget the lessons of recent history, to ignore how unreliable are the early thrusts.
Take Friday’s victims: Villa took 10 points from a first 12 on offer last season; there were two 1-0 wins, three clean sheets; the results were papering over the cracks; other than their goals, they scarcely had a shot on target.
They soon went into a spiral of decline that took them to the Badlands of a relegation dogfight.
Of course that won’t happen to United. Equally, though, only the most embedded partisan would nominate Van Gaal’s cathedral of grey as an eye-catching statement: They need more, much more to challenge.
If their quick accumulation of six points is a foundation stone on which confidence can be built, the superstructure cannot climb to the stars while the bedrock of midfield creativity and attacking panache is absent.
United are crying out for a matinee-idol, a latter-day Cantona: a peacock who wears his starched collar up, who brings a look-at-me conceit, a can-do strut, a kiss from the rose.
Van Gaal is fast-approaching a point where he can no longer pretend Rooney is that figure.
No, if OId Trafford is to be sprinkled with a confetti of stardust, then it will surely be delivered – at substantial cost – through the transfer window.