When you consider how bereft this United side has looked in the forward department – the Red Devils have yet to score a Premier League goal since the last international break over a month ago – then Rooney’s return to scoring form in the 89th minute in Istanbul might be seen by some as a sign that the club captain is knocking on the door once more.
But Mourinho must see the bigger picture right now, with the 31-year-old sitting far from the center of the United manager’s plans for a reason. Rooney’s goal Thursday well have been the 247th he has netted over his 12-year career at Old Trafford, but it is worth remembering all the things that combined to force him out of the first XI to begin with.
United still lacks so much of what was missing Sept. 24 when Rooney’s name appeared on the bench for the first time this season. Where there was a lack of energy in the final third, that still exists whenever Rooney plays. Where there was a dearth of invention there still remains an issue in creating openings.
Only when the England skipper has been missing has there been a greater verve shown by United. That is when they have taken apart the likes of Leicester, Stoke and Burnley with fluent attacking displays, despite the largely mixed results. Without Rooney, the club has shown a capability to make Manchester United football pleasing on the eye again.
One argument Rooney does have going for him is that all six of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s goals in a United shirt have come with the skipper on the field, but that really just underlines the need for the big Swede not to be left isolated as has happened too often this season. And it is not the presence or otherwise of Rooney that stopped Ibra from heading home chances against Liverpool and Chelsea, or threw Tom Heaton in the striker’s path against Burnley.
While United could do with Rooney’s knack for goals, it is about the only thing he can provide these days. Even before his speculative late strike Thursday, his touch was non-existent, his energy level was lacking, his desire was missing.
There was a moment in the first half in which he gave Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford a verbal blast for their failure to press effectively, but within seconds he could be found falling short in exactly the same regard. He might still be a leader in vocal terms, but in actions he is a shadow of the man he was.
He is too slow, too often flat-footed, too much of a peripheral figure to come even close to selection right now, and United needs more than Rooney has been providing. Nothing has changed as a result of his goal in the Europa League loss, no matter how good a strike it was. One notable piece of play in 90 minutes is just not good enough.
“Probably one of the only good things was the fact that Rooney finally scored a goal,” said Mourinho of the Fenerbahce defeat. “Maybe it is also a key point in terms of his self-confidence.”
But it will surely take more than a single goal for Rooney to regain a spot in the regular first XI. No, he still has an awful lot to prove to be considered in favor of a raft of players better-suited to taking United to where the club needs to be.