Jose Mourinho's refusal to drop Wayne Rooney to the bench over the first few games of the season was understandable. He's Manchester United's captain, longest serving player and one of the few remaining links to an era when United was one of the top clubs in the world. In addition to being the club's most famous star, he's a hard worker on the pitch and he's popular in the dressing room.
But none of that masks not being very good at soccer, which has been a problem for Rooney for quite some time. Though he was a solid contributor during United's last title-winning season and the occasionally the club's lone bright spot during the terrible David Moyes campaign, It's been about four years since Rooney was truly world class. During most of the last two, he's been genuinely poor. So on Saturday, against Leicester City, Mourinho finally made the decision to bench him.
While Rooney and Juan Mata have played together this year, Mata was the beneficiary of this change. As Rooney's replacement in the No. 10 role behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic -- a role he hasn't gotten to play very often at United because of Rooney's presence -- he was the man of the match in his team's 4-1 win, scoring a screamer and assisting a goal as well. United had a sensational spell at the end of the first half, scoring three times in five minutes.
Even more important than Mata's new role was what this lineup change did for Paul Pogba. He got his first career Premier League goal off a set piece, but his play in the center of the pitch was even more impressive. While Rooney likes to come deep to find the ball, Mata moved around higher up the pitch. Not only did that give Pogba more space to operate in the center, but it also gave him more forward passing outlets. He had more touches than any other United player and had three passes leading to shots.
Jesse Lingard looked like a nice addition to the lineup as well. Having him out wide, rather than Mata, gave United a true wide outlet and more pace on the counter. Lingard got into the box score too, taking the final touch to set up Mata's goal.
All of that is going to make it tough for Mourinho to start Rooney in his first choice team. Even if Mourinho thinks his captain is just in a bad run of form and is still one of the team's best players, his playing style doesn't mesh with Pogba and Ibrahimovic as well as Mata's does. This feels like the beginning of Rooney's gradual phasing out at Old Trafford.