“This is the area which we feel he is best at, as high up the pitch as possible, because he has got the strength, energy and courage to run in between players, run beyond players, to hold players off.” – Alex Ferguson on Wayne Rooney, January 2010
IT SEEMS AN an awful long time in Wayne Rooney’s world since this sentence was uttered.
At the time he was banging in goals for fun and much gushing was heard about how since that nasty Ronaldo lad had left, Rooney had finally been able to fulfill all that potential, leading the line as a main striker.
The United manager has, at various times since then, relegated Rooney to second- and even third-choice forward, shifted him to the wings, and dropped him. And now, in the last month or so, a little of that sparkle has come seeping back into Rooney’s game, where we’re getting a look at another evolution in the game of Wayne Rooney.
We’ve had several different Rooney variations in his United career already. There was the initial instinct to play him off a central striker, in a 4-4-1-1 with Ruud Van Nistelrooy. There’s been the Rooney as a roving wide player in a 4-3-3, which was toyed with as early as the 2005 FA Cup final by Ferguson, when he terrorised Ashley Cole from the right wing.
There was Rooney as one of a rotating top three which was the big game default formation when Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez played together. And last season Rooney was pushed into a more orthodox central striker role, where he took responsibility as chief goal-getter, generally occupying the No 9 role – even if it was a style of false nine – on his own up front.
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All worked to varying degrees of success; all were variously pointed out as reasoning behind poor form at one stage or another; all have been argued as being his only ‘true’ position (an English footballing obsession, see the decade-long debate on Sky in particular about where to get the best from Steven Gerrard).
Think of Rooney last season and you remember rampaging displays like at home against Man City in the league cup semi-final, destroying Arsenal at the Emirates and Milan over two legs, nodding in crosses from Nani and Valencia time and again. Andy Gray seemed to spend every second weekend explaining to Richard Keys just how their man had become a goal machine, putting together clips of Rooney bursting a gut to get on the end of crosses and into the box.
He seemed to have figured out how to play that position as the tip of the 4-3-3 and clipped 25 league goals in all. And yet, there was games – especially against the more decent sides (away at Bayern a perfect example) – where he still didn’t look comfortable and the whole system looked too predictable and rigid. United would have less possession, would begin hitting Rooney with longer ball, he’d become more and more isolated, frustrated and eventually lose all shape and element of danger. For all the swagger that accompanied Rooney being the main man, there was a reliance on service from wide and this could be interfered with, sometimes all too easily.
You could argue that Rooney’s position matters far less than his general form but there’s a feeling the two became interlinked after a time. The massive drop in form from March 2010 to just recently resulted from the injury in Munich, but also a confusion between his role with United and that with England in the World Cup, where Capello still very much saw him as a second striker.
He’s spent the best part of this season struggling for his touch and for a defined role – when asked to play out wide of a 4-3-3 in games at Blackpool, West Brom and Birmingham to name a few, he looked desperately ordinary, though to be fair, playing that role with Ronaldo and Tevez offers more fluency and movement than with say, Berbatov and Nani. But slowly, the fizzle has started to return to Rooney’s game in the past month or so.
A change in personnel, and slight shift in favoured formation, by Alex Ferguson has played its part in Rooney’s resurgence. Playing upfront with Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez must be about as wildly different as going out for a night with Katie Price followed by a date with Lauren Laverne. Berbatov’s inclined to drop deep towards the ball, into Rooney’s preferred space, putting pressure on Rooney to play higher up the field.
And where Rooney likes to be explosive and fast-paced with his football, the Bulgarian’s tendency to slow the pace of play down doesn’t always suit. The partnership also allows defences push high up the field, cutting off any space for Rooney to get on the ball – which might be a reason for United’s poor away displays this season, while at Old Trafford the away teams tend to sit deep anyway.
Hernandez on the other hand plays on the shoulder of centre-backs, forcing defenders to sit 15-20 yards deeper, opening up a whole area in front of a back four to get on ball, an area where Rooney naturally thrives. Rooney has been influencing games from a little deeper again – in the centre of the three in a 4-2-3-1 – with a freedom to roam into positions to receive ball and turn, again because Hernandez has dragged defenders towards goal and taken that responsibility of striker highest up the pitch.
It’s resulted in moments like Rooney’s part in the first goal against Arsenal in the FA Cup, the assist for Hernandez against Marseille and allowed him to come onto balls on the edge of the box again, as with the goal against Chelsea this week (and the goal in the league at Stamford Bridge also – just think, he didn’t score from outside the box last season).
It’s allowed Rooney utilise his more natural ability to create when facing the goal rather than receiving the ball with his back to goal, where his touch and positional awareness can be awkward (see how easily Vincent Kompany man-marked him in the Old Trafford derby game a few months back, and yeah, we know Rooney got that wonder goal). He’s also more able to influence games himself, rather than being reliant on service, something that’s most likely more beneficial to United overall.
Sure, there were mountains of goals last season but Rooney’s always been about more than just scoring. He performed a vital role in the United of 2007/ 2008/2009 (especially as part of the Ronaldo/Rooney/Tevex 4-3-3-0), where his part is sometimes downgraded to some sort of grafting watercarrier to Ronaldo. Think this assist v Spurs, THAT pass v Chelsea in the Champions league final, or the weight and timing of the pass for Ronaldo in this goal (also above), as cameos only Rooney could have pulled off.
An average of 12 assists in a league season fell to five last campaign; it’s back up to 11 already for 2010/11. As much as Rooney’s goalscoring rate soared brilliantly for one season – and there’s an argument that this wasn’t an entirely welcome development for United or England, given how they became dependent on him and when he was missing or misfiring, both teams couldn’t cope – it may be that Rooney as number 10 is more beneficial, more rounded, better for himself and team than Rooney as No 9.
There are signs of Rooney getting close to top form; there are signs that where he’s playing right now is allowing him to do just that.