Move along, ladies and gentlemen, nothing to see here. If you're looking for a freshly chalked Wayne Rooney controversy on the other side of that police tape, you're going to be disappointed. "He will be here next year, you have my word on that. There is no issue between myself and Wayne Rooney," said the Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson in his pre-match press conference earlier today, tagging the toe of a story that has dominated the soccer pages since Tuesday. "To suggest we don't talk is nonsense," he added. Come on folks, move it along, go home.
The theory of premediation has it that we are so determined to avoid the trauma of real news that the media expend most of their energy imagining every possible future; when United's team sheet was circulated around Old Trafford on Tuesday evening, few people had imagined that it would not have Wayne Rooney's name on it. Since then we have seen stories appearing at a furious rate: Rooney to Paris Saint-Germain, Rooney wants to play at Barça, Rooney's wages too high for a move... there is now no future that has not already been mapped for United's No.10 somewhere in newsprint.
And all for naught, according to Ferguson, who has emphasized his displeasure at the enterprise by banning the Daily Mail and the Independent from his press conferences until they apologize for their coverage of the issue, which talked up "tensions" between player and manager. (In response, the Independent likened Ferguson's denial today to a politician appearing arm-in-arm with his wife to fight off rumors about the intern.) The decision, Ferguson explained, was tactical, and Rooney did not have a problem with it.
"He understood the reasons completely," Ferguson said. "Tactically we got it right. We don't always, but we did then. Welbeck is the best player we have in terms of operating a double role. We had to chalk out Xabi Alonso's ability to control the game, which he did, and also his ability to go further forward as an attacking player."
Rooney may be gritty and furious, but there can be no argument: Welbeck fulfilled the role better than Rooney is able to, switching from stifling and harrying to a more advanced position superbly well. It was largely thanks to Welbeck and Ryan Giggs, helping Rafael on Cristiano Ronaldo's side of the pitch, that United's game plan succeeded for the best part of an hour before Nani was sent off; without that and the Rooney story, this would surely have been the tie that established Welbeck as more than a puppyish trier.
The many comparisons that have been made to the departures of players such as David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy arguably falter on this terrain. When Ferguson left out David Beckham against Real Madrid in 2003, he justified it on the basis that Ole Gunnar Solksjaer was in good form -- in Beckham's role, creating chances with deliveries from out wide. In the team that Ferguson sent out this week, there was no such obvious "Rooney role." Perhaps the real crisis was in the confidence of pundits who before kick off still believed that Rooney simply must play in matches of this magnitude.
Whether or not the stories of Rooney's anger at being benched or Ferguson's familiar promise are bogus, some of the questions that all of this poses about the forward's career are genuine. There was a time when supporters of club and country would rather see Rooney lining up holding one leg on with his sock tie than go in to a big game without him. Now, though there were tweets of indignation when the teams were announced on Tuesday, by halftime it was clear that United could do that not just because Rooney "needed a few games," but because the XI was better for it. (And, had there been room for a No.10 from the start, Shinji Kagawa would be the player most entitled to feel put out by being left out of it -- as Ferguson said: "I thought I would get more stick for that.")
Is this a tale of unfulfilled potential, as some commentators would have it -- is Rooney paying for late nights and cigarettes and junk food? Is his inability to shed and keep off the extra weight he has always carried becoming a problem? The speculation about where Rooney might go next has marked out clubs that can afford him and clubs that would want to sign him; with the exception of PSG, the two groups are mutually exclusive. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich... none has need of Rooney at the kind of wage that he would command. A few years ago we approached the World Cup arguing about Rooney's place in the top two or three players on the planet.
Or is this simply what happens when a club "attracts the top players in the world"? That was what Rooney demanded of United when he threatened to leave for Manchester City in the 2010-11 season, when his competition included Federico Macheda and Michael Owen. The arrivals of Kagawa and Robin van Persie, allied to the development of Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, have radically changed things. There is a certain irony that the same ink used to label Tottenham Hotspur a one-man team is also being used to express horror that United has, essentially, dealt with its previous over-reliance on Rooney.
Beckham said that he knew that he was going to be dropped for the visit of Real Madrid 10 years ago. "I was on the outside looking in," he said, imagining Ferguson's line of thinking: "Real Madrid: an important game, son. Too important for you to play in." Even if we know that it is best to take Ferguson's assurances with a pinch of salt, it is still very difficult to imagine that the United manager has similar feelings about Rooney's place at the club. He is no longer irreplaceable, but that is not the same as inevitably being replaced.