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Manchester United finally has no good reason to start Wayne Rooney

This could well be the season where the 'Wayne Rooney question' finally has its answer.

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AFC Bournemouth v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

The Premier League, along with their television partners, couldn't have planned it better. Regular Friday night football begins this week with Manchester United hosting Southampton, but there's a decent chance that this might also -- after a long summer of Mino Raiola and Instagram and Stormzy and an awful lot of money -- be world record signing Paul Pogba's debut for Manchester United. Well, his second debut. His rebut? No, that doesn't work.

Pogba is the final piece in what looks to be an exciting and deep United squad. If we assume that Jose Mourinho will stick with a back four, then there are six positions ahead of that in need of filling, and considerable options available. Anthony Martial, Memphis Depay, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard can all play wide with varying degrees of effectiveness and excitement. Either Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Marcus Rashford can play up top. Pogba, Mata, Mkhitaryan and maybe even Ibrahimovic can do varying kinds of work behind a striker. Deeper in midfield and depending on shape and gameplan, there's Pogba, Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin to choose from.

All the above fit neatly into various flavors of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, and there's even the option to play a midfield diamond behind two strikers, should Mourinho decide to start drinking before games. Although Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia do like getting forward from fullback ... no, no, that would be ridiculous.

And then there's Wayne Rooney.

A thought experiment: take any of those possible formations, fill it out with the players mentioned that in your view are best suited to the various roles, and then replace one of them, in any position, with Rooney. And ask yourself: is the side better or worse for that change? If your answer is a definitive "YES!" then, well, you've more faith in Rooney than your correspondent does. Manchester United's captain has, at various times in his career and with varying levels of distinction, played in all the positions covered above, from central striker to deep-sitting midfielder. Now, and for perhaps the first time, he finds himself in a squad that might just have a better option in all of them.

What's been interesting about Rooney's later career is the manner in which he has aged. You don't have to to entirely subscribe to former United fullback, current forthright opinion-haver Paul Parker's view ...

If someone had only heard of Wayne Rooney but seen him now they’d think ‘Who is this fella? He’s overweight and slow. That shot was terrible, and it looks like he can’t move or shift his body quick enough.’

... to acknowledge that Rooney, for much of the last two or three seasons, has been deeply frustrating to watch on a football pitch. His first touch is spectacularly unreliable, his movement (with and without the ball) can be deeply plodding and those long, slow passes out to the wings might have a pleasing arc, but they don't seem particularly constructive. Moves seem to coagulate around him. And yet, just occasionally, he'll do something that makes you think: yep, there's Wayne Rooney.

His goal on Sunday against Bournemouth was assisted by a miscued shot and some generous non-marking, but at the same time it was a smart, instinctive finish, the kind of quick adjustment in body shape that looks easy but so often ends up going wrong. His cameo as a midfielder against Crystal Palace in last season's FA Cup final included one scintillating run from deep midfield, through and round the defense, to make United's equalizer; and last season against Newcastle he even smacked one in from outside the area, a goal that brought nothing so much as a bitter jolt of nostalgia.

Yet this ability to produce in moments doesn't in itself explain the fact that he's been essentially undroppable for both United's last two managers. It's worth acknowledging at this point that Rooney still commands a high level of public respect from professionals past and present — except Paul Parker, apparently — and so there may be more to his persistent presence on the pitch than can be perceived from stand or television camera, or to the untutored eye. Maybe he's catalytic, in some sense; maybe his vast experience and inspirational figure compensates for his maladroit touch. Which does, at least, raise the entertaining thought that had David Moyes or Louis van Gaal dropped him, their teams might have been even less coherent.

Alternatively, maybe Moyes in his one season and van Gaal in his two never quite felt that they had the alternatives to take the risk, or the security of performance to endure the ensuing media shitshow (and oh, what a magnificent shitshow it's going to be, whenever it happens). Moyes' squad, though reigning champions, was a weirdly unbalanced thing, made all the more so by the post-Alex Ferguson nosedive of so many players, and practically the Scots' only act of any consequence was to give Rooney a shiny new contract. And though van Gaal spent heavily, he also spent much of his time banishing footballers from his squads for having the temerity to run with the ball, shoot on sight or pass in the wrong direction; sins that Rooney managed for the most part to avoid.

If you prefer something slightly more cynical, you could of course note that Rooney's self-defined best position tends to be whichever department United are lightest in. Or, perhaps, that Rooney has recently been — until Pogba — United's only truly global superstar, a key pillar of Manchester United: The Brand. He even has aspects of his contract and image rights tied up with the club's own remarkable marketing department. A footballer that's more important to the club than their manager is rarely at risk.

But United have Mourinho, a superstar in his own right. And now they have Pogba, and and Ibrahimovic, and Rashford waiting in the wings. All the things that Rooney has been over his United career — the Next Big Thing; the Actual Big Thing; the Creative Hub; the Elder Statesman — can now be found elsewhere in the squad, in players who are variously younger, or sharper, or quicker, or more consistent.

The early signs are that Mourinho will keep him in place for the moment. Whether this is because he thinks him genuinely a part of his best possible team, or things are just working themselves out after a slightly truncated preseason, or he learned from his experiences with Iker Casillas that brutally axing popular captains rarely goes smoothly, we don't know. But time catches up with everybody eventually, and given the squad around him, this could well be the season that Rooney makes the final shift in his United position. From White Pele to white elephant.