Jose Mourinho asked for "mad dogs" after Manchester United's disappointing result at Southampton at the weekend. Against Arsenal at Old Trafford on Wednesday he got Marcos Rojo, the player whose United teammates will tell you wants to win more than any other. This is a man who takes training as seriously as another former tenacious player who wore the No 16 shirt, Roy Keane. Both picked up injuries as a result.
Ask those teammates who works the hardest in training and they will say it is the man whose surname means "red" in Spanish. Rojo is not a refined defender, but the 28 year old, who joined United in 2014, didn’t get to play for United and 59 games for Argentina without displaying battling qualities.
You wonder if Argentina would have been able to stage the Copa Libertadores final between River Plate and Boca Juniors had they put Rojo in charge of security. He’s a street fighter who stands with the ultras of Estudiantes when he returns home to the same estate where he grew up. The family show few of the trappings of wealth – that’s not the done thing on the streets of La Plata, where the Rojo family is well respected and where Marco’s uncle keeps chickens by a wall on which Marco’s name is written in graffiti. A much bigger mural in honour of Rojo is on a nearby wall, wearing the shirts of Estudiantes and Argentina. They are extremely proud of Rojo in an area where half the young men seem to be walking around in Manchester United shirts.
Rojo made his first start of the season in Wednesday's 2-2 Premier League draw against Arsenal while Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku were on the bench. The player who scored the winning goal for Argentina against Nigeria at the World Cup in the summer - a screamer that he will be able to dine out on in La Plata for the rest of his life on - has been sidelined with a knee injury, but injuries to Phil Jones and Victor Lindelof meant he returned and played alongside Eric Bailly, who also has not featured much this campaign.
Bailly was masterful at Old Trafford; he can be when he has a point to prove. Rojo was the mad dog Mourinho had demanded. He was brave to stand up against unbeaten in their last 19 matches heading into the game and who had taken a 26th-minute lead through a Shkodran Mustafi header which should have been saved by David de Gea. Given United’s awful form this season, especially at home, the crowd could have turned. They didn’t have time.
A Rojo free kick effort four minutes later cleared the wall and was pushed away by Bernd Leno. Ander Herrera cut the ball back for Anthony Martial to score. Several players congratulated Rojo, who wasn’t hard to miss in his fluorescent yellow boots. He wasn’t hard to miss in the 38th minute either when his two-footed challenge on French midfielder Matteo Guendouzi angered Arsenal players and earned Rojo a yellow card.
Rojo’s worst moment came in the 68th minute when he gave the ball away to his former United teammate Henrikh Mkhitaryan who played it towards Alexandre Lacazette. Rojo chased desperately and got to the ball – only to put it into his own goal.
“Marcos made a mistake but then a fantastic recovery and a risky one because he had a yellow card,” said his manager. “He played a very good game.”
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United hit back quickly with a Jesse Lingard equaliser. The decisive ball forward came from Rojo.
It would stay at 2-2, with Arsenal, who haven’t won at Old Trafford for 12 years, extending their unbeaten record to 20 games. The draw meant United have picked up only three points from their last four matches and remain eight points off the top four. The travelling Arsenal fans had teased Mourinho with chants of "We want you to stay", but there was more energy and spirit inside a noisy Old Trafford than in recent weeks, although the home side's unconventional 3-4-3, enforced because of a spate of injuries, didn't mean an upgrade in the quality of play.
A minute after Lingard’s equaliser, Rojo was substituted for Marouanne Fellaini. He didn’t amble off but ran, because he believed his team could still win. Old Trafford’s main stand stood and applauded him. He deserved it for his three shots on target, more than any other player. They knew he had made a mistake for Arsenal's second but also knew that he had played well in his first match back from injury, brightening up a thrilling, error- strewn game.
And how Old Trafford needed it during this most soporific of seasons.
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