Anthony Martial's superb form since his arrival at Manchester United, with three goals in two Premier League games, has remarkably already gone some way to easing concerns over his £36 million transfer fee paid to Monaco on deadline day. However, it also has had the unintended consequence of throwing the productivity of his fellow forwards into the spotlight.
Memphis Depay has so far failed to score in England's top flight since his £25m move from PSV Eindhoven, though he has looked excellent in Europe with his three Champions League goals. At the same time, this inconsistency was to be expected from a 21-year old making his way in a new country -- Martial's adjustment to his surroundings has so far been freakishly fast, and may yet see him endure periods where he finds it difficult to score. The other major issue for manager Louis van Gaal, of course, is the form of Wayne Rooney.
The primary issue is not the statistic that Rooney has so far gone 11 games without a goal in the Premier League -- he has always been a player who gives his team more than goals, having long been one of the hardest-working forwards around with an eye for an assist. No, the main issue is that he may be prone to the same ravages of age and injury that dramatically affected former Chelsea strikers Andriy Shevchenko and Fernando Torres.
It is instructive to watch the highlights of his Champions League debut against Fenerbahce in 2004. In this match, where he scored a spectacular hat trick, all of his best qualities are there: the vision, the hustle, the ruthlessness in front of goal, and yes, even the wonderful control. (At 2 minutes, 13 seconds of this video, there is a hint of the first touch he would later struggle with -- one of the more puzzling aspects of his game more recently has been his difficulty to trap the ball in an instant at times, something that he once seemed to do without a moment's thought).
Just a couple of weeks ago, Rooney scored a fine hat trick in the Champions League against Club Brugge, albeit of a very different nature. This was a series of clinical close-range finishes, which illustrated perfectly the kind of player that he has become -- more of a poacher, who uses guile rather than athleticism to get into scoring position.
Rooney is still only 29, but he already has played 563 games in all competitions (producing, for the record, a very fine return of 250 goals). In Shevchenko's 29th year, he had played 462 games of professional football, scoring 267 goals. Meanwhile, Torres -- though being two years older than Rooney -- has played only 35 more games than him, scoring 226 in 598 appearances.
When Torres, Shevchenko and Rooney hit 29, they had all played a very great deal of football, and Rooney had arguably played it at a greater intensity than either of them. He had certainly played it in a greater variety of positions, and had almost certainly covered more ground. His industry has long been similar to that of a central midfielder, and that is why it may be useful to compare his numbers to that of a new teammate of his, Bastian Schweinsteiger.
In Schweinsteiger's 29th year, he had played 472 games of professional football, 91 fewer than Rooney. Now that Germany's World Cup winner is 31, we see his minutes being carefully managed by Van Gaal, with the Dutchman bringing him on to impose control on games (which, remarkably, he almost always does). Perhaps it is time to manage Rooney's minutes too.
This is not as simple an issue as dropping him, because that implies a punitive measure and one that would not befit the club's captain. Rooney will always be unloved by those angered by his desire to leave the club on two occasions and by those frustrated at his inability to retain the highest standards of physical conditioning. Yet his record suggests that if he is used more sparingly from now on -- if, say, he either begins as a substitute or starts and is brought off at around the 60-70 minute mark, to make way for fresher legs -- then he can still make a decisive contribution at the highest level.
Van Gaal may be aware of this need to rotate Rooney, and the evidence of that is his refusal to allow James Wilson to go to Wolverhampton Wanderers on loan. Wilson, aged only 19, was thought by many to be on his way to a Championship club till the end of the season following the arrival of Martial. Now, though, his services have been retained at Old Trafford.
Though Rooney still has speed over long distances, he has lost some of his explosiveness over the first few yards, and Van Gaal seems to be more keen to deploy fast forwards as the games go by. On that note, his selection of Ashley Young, Depay and Martial for the Champions League game against PSV Eindhoven was as quick a front line as United have had in some time.
If Rooney is to be rotated, then the matter must be sensitively handled. Michael Carrick has been rotated for some time, but he is a player of far lower profile, and there are therefore far fewer headlines when his name does not appear in the starting lineup.
Rotating the England striker may not even need to happen immediately, given that United are only two points behind Manchester City in the Premier League, and Van Gaal may thus wish to keep the winning team as it is for the time being. But as the season draws on, and United find themselves in contention for several trophies at once, then Rooney's commendable desire to be involved in every game may have to be overruled -- both for his own benefit, and for that of his club.