Wayne Rooney is an excellent player in a few positions, but at the moment Manchester United have better options in all of them. Nick Miller wonders about his place.
For a while in the first half, it was glorious. Manchester United flowed, attacked with purpose and probed a Fulham defence who were left dizzy and punch-drunk with the terrific movement from their opponents.
And all this without Wayne Rooney.
Dropping a player is a common tactic by Sir Alex Ferguson when he feels they need a boot in their bottom. And after his listless, slack performance at Everton, boy did Rooney need that boot. I wrote on Friday that dropping Rooney for this game could have been an option, and was dismissed as a knee-jerk merchant by some. However, it was not intended to write off Rooney after one bad game, but was more a recognition that the England forward sometimes does exactly this. He goes through spells of looking unfit and off the pace, and is a burden to the United team rather than the talismanic figure he can be.
Ferguson did not leave Rooney out because he believes he is no longer a good player, but perhaps to force home the point that United do not rely on Rooney these days, if they ever really did.
Rooney is now in a curious position, because if United persist with a 4-2-3-1 - the formation du jour - he does not easily fit in. Rooney is an excellent player in a few positions, but United now have better options in all of them.
Rooney could play as a centre-forward, but now they have Robin van Persie. Rooney could play in the playmaking, probing role behind that central striker, but now they have Shinji Kagawa. Rooney could even play out wide, but United have several wingers better suited to the job.
So while Rooney is one of United's best players, he doesn't currently fit into their best first team.
United simply looked more balanced with Van Persie and Kagawa combining with widemen Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. They had a fluidity and penetration that was missing at Everton, and while a trip to Goodison Park is clearly a tougher task than a home tie against Fulham, the difference in threat was remarkable. Granted they fell away rather after the break, but this is a new attacking combination that will take time to get used to each other.
This is not to draw hasty conclusions from 45 minutes of excellent football, just to point out that in theory, with a little evidence to back it up so far, United's team fits together better without Rooney. Van Persie's goal provided some evidence too, for he is the only player in the United squad - possibly the league - capable of producing such a finish.
Incidentally, I'm aware this goes slightly against a piece I wrote during United's chase of Van Persie that suggested they didn't need him, but now the Dutchman is there, it would be foolish not to recognise his potential contribution.
And we will have some time to get used to a Rooney-less United. At the time of writing, it is thought he will be out for a month with a horrible-looking gash to his thigh, so presumably the Van Persie-Kagawa axis will have more time to gel and flourish.
If - a significant if, granted - those two develop into the sort of threatening partnership that the first half against Fulham suggested, it's hard to see how Ferguson can put Rooney straight back into the side when he returns.
An interesting few weeks await.