It was with his old bravado that Jose Mourinho pledged his club would “try to the last day” when he was asked about the pursuit of Wayne Rooney on Sunday but there is a reality dawning at Chelsea that what they hoped would be one of the most exciting signings in even their recent history is not going to happen – in this transfer window at least.
All the signs given to Chelsea – and there are no secrets about how this works – is that if it was down to the player he would be there already. The problem for Rooney is that United’s hierarchy, from the Glazers to executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and manager David Moyes, have no intention of selling Rooney.
In this instance, the usual conventions of contract management do not apply. United are well aware that Rooney is entering the last two years of his contract, a period in which the power swings towards the player as he approaches the end of his deal and free agent status. But for United, the manager, the board and the owners, this is about a lot more than whether Rooney might leave on a free or not two years down the road.
In fact, with the new £50m-a-year Chevrolet deal to begin next season, as well as a new Nike kit deal which could conceivably double in value from the existing contract, for once the Premier League’s biggest corporate behemoth feel that they do not need to consider the balance sheet when it comes to Rooney. United could afford to take the hit of losing Rooney for nothing. What the club believe they cannot afford is the blow in prestige of selling to Chelsea – especially in this period of transition from Sir Alex Ferguson to Moyes.
If it turns out that the player stays for two more seasons and refuses to sign a new deal along the way, the mood at United is that they would rather they let him go for nothing than sell him to Chelsea now. They cite the example of the sale of Fernando Torres in 2011 as the moment that Liverpool fatally diminished their own standing in the transfer market relative to Chelsea, regardless of the world record fee.
Where does this leave Chelsea? They are already considering a short-term fix to their striker issue. They will, in all likelihood, take a striker on a free transfer before the end of the window to address what they see as the imbalance among their attacking options. Samuel Eto’o has been considered and, while not a free agent, he could be an option, given the fire sale at Anzhi Makhachkala.
This is not an easy problem to resolve, especially given that so much has been resting on the success of the Rooney deal. “In this moment every striker has a club,” Mourinho said on Sunday. “Every striker belongs to somebody.”
The issue at Chelsea is that one of the many reasons Mourinho had targeted Rooney was that he fitted the profile of a striker who can operate when, as Mourinho described it last month, “opponents are compact”. In Torres they have a striker who plays on the shoulder of the last defender and, in Mourinho’s words this summer, “when you have to play him in small spaces I think he will have a little bit more difficulty”.
The plan was always that either Torres or Demba Ba would be sold in the event of a deal for Rooney being successful, leaving Chelsea with a manageable three strikers, including Romelu Lukaku, in a formation that only accommodates one at a time.
Sunday’s 2-0 win over Hull demonstrated the quality that Mourinho has at his disposal in his three creative players behind the main striker, and this on an occasion when Juan Mata, player of the year for the two previous seasons, was not even on the bench.
Kevin De Bruyne, who played in the central and right-sided positions on Sunday, said: “The manager has confidence in the group; he said he has a squad of 24 people and he believes in everybody, that everybody can start. OK, there are a lot of good players, playing at a high level. As a team we will grow with this; we have to know each other better and better.”
Mourinho’s plan for the summer has always revolved around signing Rooney and without him not all the components he hoped for are in place. Yet it would appear that the short-term fix Chelsea have in mind means they are prepared to wait a little longer for their first-choice target.