When Patrice Evra was questioned over the new competition provided to his role by Alexander Buttner, the left-back angrily asserted that everybody has to fight for their place at Manchester United. "They forget very quickly how I got to become Manchester United's left-back", thundered the Frenchman. "I fought with two great players in Gabriel Heinze and Mikael Silvestre. If someone is there or not I will fight because you have to respect the shirt. When you play for Manchester United that is the big challenge."
Citations of Mikael Silvestre as a 'great player' aside, Evra will know that for the last few seasons, his argument does not ring true, as he has been left as the only contender for the United left-back position. The reason is not purely complacency - in doing so, he has had to play a ridiculous number of games, scarcely getting a game off in almost three years. Even to the most dedicated player, the grind of such a role is bound to lead to some degree of laziness to set in. Evra's alarming decline can no longer be denied, and it is no coincidence that United's other player who has performed so far beneath himself has been similarly unchallenged in his role - Wayne Rooney.
Rooney has been undroppable for Manchester United in the past three seasons. Sometimes because of his form, but more commonly because United's other strikers are either too young (Danny Welbeck), too limited (Javier Hernandez) or afflicted by some apparently illogical refusal to pick them by Alex Ferguson (Dimitar Berbatov.) Rooney is the only one of the four who can be trusted to play alone up front, and the only one who offers an all-round game, creating and defending from the front rather than just leading the line. In theory, at least.
In reality, Rooney has declined in ability over recent seasons as surely as Evra has. He has still scored plenty of goals, many of them important ones, but typically he has been asked to play a more general attacking role. In 2009-10, he was left to his own devices as a pure goalscorer, and enjoyed a productive season as poacher before an injury against Bayern Munich caused his form to fall off a cliff.
Elsewhere on the pitch, however, when displaying his other attributes which have led him to be preferred to any of United's other options, he has not performed at the required standard. The number of attacks United wasted last year was shocking, and a good deal of them came through Rooney's misplaced passes, dribbles into defenders, and poor touches. He clearly lacks the ability or form to perform a role that requires him to manoeuvre in such tight spaces, to find the right pass, and to do so whilst using the ball efficiently.
The last point is key. With United's midfield weakness, they cannot afford to be a team that wastes attacks when they are able to mount them. It is the difference between Antonio Valencia and Nani which has led the Ecuadorian to win the battle for United's right wing. Both are speedy and capable crossers of the ball, and while Nani offers more options going forwards, he does so with a considerable chance that the ball will be lost and United will soon be retreating back towards their own goal. Valencia uses the ball sparingly, working an opening until he can find a clear one, and moving the ball on if he cannot, and that makes him a better option for United.
Now, Rooney may find the same story has happened in his position. Robin van Persie has upped his game considerably this season, and appears, along with Falcao, to be staking a claim as the best in the world in his position. The Dutchman does not drop so deep as Rooney, and does not attempt audacious dribbles and killer passes. He receives the ball, moves it on, and looks to receive it somewhere in a shooting position. It's a far more simple style of play, and it seems to suit Manchester United far better. It's likely that the temptation to try the two together will be too difficult to resist, but that would necessitate playing Shinji Kagawa, by far United's best option for midfield creativity, out of position, making it a questionable option in the long-term.
In short, Rooney may find that his place in the team is no longer an automatic one, particularly if Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck are capable of being effective foils to Van Persie. It may be the reason that Ferguson spent so heavily to bring him in from Arsenal in the first place, and it's of benefit to everyone. Perhaps he may even get to reprise his role on the left from the Cristiano Ronaldo years, where he proved a hugely effective player. Either way, it's unlikely that the worst of last year's petulance, entitlement, and wasteful performances will be tolerated this season. If he reacts well, Van Persie could be the man to save Rooney from himself.