It’s not Arturo Vidal or Mats Hummels but it seems Manchester United finally have a new signing in £16million man Marcos Rojo. The Argentine defender will arrive at Old Trafford with more questions than those believing him to have the answers. No matter. Rojo has proved the critics wrong before.
There were certainly plenty of them as Argentina prepared for their World Cup campaign this summer. The calls for his axe reached something of a crescendo after a particularly uninspired goalless draw with Romania in March. With hindsight, this result hinted at the solid base Argentina would go on to build their run to the World Cup final upon. That wasn’t the feeling at the time.
“Argentina probably has the worst defence in their history and one of the worst at the World Cup,” wrote Argentine journalist Edgardo Martolio on 442, before describing the team’s difficulties as ‘the Rojo problem’ in reference to the obvious weak link destined to see them exposed in Brazil.
Martolio was not alone in his assessment. The widely held view in Argentina was that coach Alejandro Sabella unfairly favoured Rojo from their time together at Estudiantes. It was there that, according to South American football expert Tim Vickery, Rojo had “made such an impact in the second half of 2010 as Estudiantes won the Argentine championship”.
Rojo had partnered fellow future Argentina international Federico Fernandez in the heart of defence at youth level but was converted to left-back by Sabella when breaking through into the first team. It was in this role that his combination of strength and speed first caught the eye.
As has become a familiar problem for young South American stars, a premature move to Europe threatened to stunt his progress and a difficult spell at Spartak Moscow followed. Doubts over his poor positioning and ill-disciplined continued into his time at Sporting and Rojo struggled in his first season in Portugal as the club endured the worst league finish – seventh – in its history.
Such setbacks could have shaken an explosive character whose weaknesses were perceived to be ones of temperament rather than technique. But Rojo not only produced a series of strong performances at centre-back for Sporting last season but showed renewed determination in his efforts for the national team too.
Despite the 24-year-old being asked to start the World Cup as a left wing-back after spending the season at centre half, by the time he’d forced home the winner against Nigeria with his knee in the final group game, Rojo found himself being lauded as a cult figure.
Better than Pele?
There was even a song in his honour. Argentina’s World Cup opus ‘Brazil, how does it feel’ was designed to antagonise their hosts, with the final line - ‘Maradona es mas grande que Pele’ – a gentle reminder of their conviction that Diego Maradona is superior to Pele.
After the victory over Nigeria, it was amended. Now it was Marcos Rojo greater than Pele. A tongue-in-cheek reference to that supposed weak link and one the player himself embraced – showing a sense of humour in retweeting the song to his followers. From zero to hero.
“Thank God people are now showing some love to Marcos,” goalkeeper Sergio Romero told Reuters. “He deserves it. He’s a strong player who goes up and down the field. He defends, then attacks, he has even scored. He never gave up and he’s showing that he’s good enough to play in the national team.” Sabella echoed those sentiments, adding: “I’m happy for him because they treated him really badly and he didn't deserve it.”
It wasn’t just a fortunate goal that contributed to the shift in mood. Rojo genuinely surpassed expectations and confounded the critics. Only five players made more interceptions than him at the World Cup and only six players made more tackles. His combative nature proved an asset.
While a suspension saw Rojo miss the quarter-final against Belgium, he returned with a fine display in the semi-final win over the Netherland and might have been credited with the World Cup winning assist had Rodrigo Palacio converted a clear chance from his extra-time cross. Mario Gotze’s goal shortly afterwards came via the other flank. For Rojo, the tournament was a triumph.
“Rojo won the hearts of the Argentine people at the World Cup,” said compatriot Diego Simeone in selecting his World Cup XI. “He did well both in attack and in defence – and he showed that Sabella made no mistake in picking him at left-back. Even though he’s not a full-back, Sabella trusted him and the boy responded really well. He played a great World Cup and was the best left-back in the teams that reached the semi-finals: Brazil, Germany, Netherlands and Argentina. That says a lot.”
It’s quite the turnaround in fortunes and one that has led to another challenge. Rojo must surely now up his game again following his move to Manchester United. This is a task that will require rather more than half a dozen strong performances but instead a hitherto unprecedented consistency to sustain a high level for an extended period of time.
After all, he is not arriving as a low-key acquisition to bolster a big red machine that’s ploughing to titles but instead with hope that he can act as something of a panacea for their recent woes. Likely to be earmarked for the left-sided defensive role in a back-three, Rojo will be perceived as the first of the specialists – a player who can make sense of this new system.
His name might mean red in Spanish but that doesn’t mean he is an obvious fit. “Before the World Cup, no one really imagined Rojo as a player of Manchester United's calibre,” Vickery told talkSPORT this week. But things have changed for both player and club. The question now is whether or not Marcos Rojo can prove the doubters wrong all over again.