Should Manchester United start their Rojo Diablo?
Background image: Jeronym Pelikovsky
Faust is the ambitious German bloke who made a deal with the Devil. As a great many Germans reside in Argentina, it isn’t surprising that a certain Manchester United defender’s full name is Faustino Marcos Alberto Rojo. Considering he is under contract with the Red Devils, it’s fair to say he’s lived up to that sobriquet. It goes beyond a mere play on words, however. There’s both a sinister and devil-may-care attitude to the Argentine’s game.
Unfortunately, a serious injury prevented Manchester United from benefitting [or suffering] from those attributes for an extended time. In his absence, the club went in a different direction.
At centre-back, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones took over for Eric Bailly, injury-prone in his own right, and Rojo. That didn’t work so well but Rojo’s prognosis was so dire and Bailly’s so repetitive, the club ultimately signed Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire.
At left-back, United went with a promising young Englishman who formerly kitted up for Southampton. Luke Shaw’s strongest asset is his discipline. Jose Mourinho’s bullying made him painfully aware of his surroundings. The erstwhile England international is always nearby to support his teammates and make timely tackles.
On the other hand, the aggression that exemplifies the best modern full-backs was browbeaten out of him. You don’t often see Shaw joining the attack or whipping in crosses like Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson and Tottenham’s Danny Rose. No joyous abandon. Instead, he tends to work short passes with Marcus Rashord, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba, tentatively probing around the perimeter of the opposing 18-yard box.
While Shaw’s been shelved [and isn't Old Trafford beginning to resemble a bookshop rather than a football pitch?] Ashley Young starts Premier League games. The new club captain has it in his makeup to push for goal but, on the wrong side of 30, his fading pace worries him into hanging back and arriving late.
Originally, it may have been Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s plan to start Young in European and cup competition. Fortunately, the best-laid plans of nice Norwegian men don’t always come to fruition. Sometimes fate reveals a better way. Forced to improvise, the United boss called on Marcos Rojo, finally fully fit, for both the Europa League clash with Astana and the EFL Cup tie with League One Rochdale.
Oddly enough, Jose Mourinho took a diametric approach to Rojo than he did with Luke Shaw. In the Special One’s first season with the Red Devils, he encouraged the player’s aggressive tendencies. Who can forget the Argentine, in his eagerness to win the ball, flying into a pair of two-footed challenges mere games apart? Perhaps, with the Superman crest tattooed on his neck, he thought he could leap into tackles with a single bound but his strongest attribute is also the kryptonite that weakens his appeal.
Rojo’s instinctive red haze colours his work on the ball too. Making up for lost time, the 29-year-old isn’t as likely to tiki-taka his way around the perimeter as unleash vicious crosses, the occasional thunderbolt from distance or lay off before continuing his run directly into the box.
In the second half of the Europa League tilt, with United struggling to break through, he took aim from about 30 yards, lighting the fuse on a volley through the crowded eighteen. It streaked just past the far post. Edmond Halley would have admired the tail on that comet. Turning to jog back into position while Eric, the overworked Astana keeper, fetched the ball for a goal kick, Rojo offered Nemanja Matic and Phil Jones a devilish grin as if to say he couldn’t resist.
Against Rochdale, Rojo switched from left-back to centre-half when Ole brought 19-year-old Brandon Williams on for his first-team debut to start the second half. In the opening 45, however, the Argentine made Brian Barry-Murphy’s lads aware of his presence. Over the full 90, he attempted seven shots, matching Greenwood even though the teenager was much closer to goal. Rojo showed up in the box, too, very nearly directing a header past the Dale keeper, Robert Sanchez.
In both matches, he was also busy whipping in crosses. His game is filled with the joyous abandon with which United once played.
Of course, Rojo’s Faustian nature works both ways. You can’t predict when he might cross the line from dangerous to reckless. It’s the club who'd now be making a deal with the Devil. Solskjaer played with another powderkeg in Roy Keane. He knows the reward for having the loose Irish cannon in midfield outweighed the risk.
Rojo’s aggression and hunger for goal are exactly what this young side need to see. They struggle to bury opponents. Unlike Luke Shaw and Ashley Young, Faustino Marcos Alberto Rojo won’t hang back or pussyfoot around. He’s in the side to do damage.
While that damage is occasionally a back-blast that will hurt United, executive veep and Glazer toady Ed Woodward already announced the club will stick with Solskjaer and engage in a “three-year plan”, a la Liverpool, to rebuild the squad. Regardless of whether United fans approve [spoiler alert: they don’t], tomorrow takes precedence over today. Rojo’s mistakes won’t cost United a title this season but his killer instinct might infect the young stars who someday might win one.
Wouldn't you love to see devilish grins all around rather than the discouraged frowns currently on display?