It’s the opening day of the 2015/2016 season. Manchester United faces a potentially tricky opener against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford. Wayne Rooney, restored to a role at number nine, is in acres of space in the Spurs area. The United skipper takes a touch and is ready to pull the trigger…
It’s the stuff of dreams for red top headline writers – Rooney’s triumphant goal-scoring return as United’s main striker. Except, of course, Kyle Walker nipped in to score an own goal, leaving United’s number 10 resembling a confused zombie from the American TV series, The Walking Dead.
In truth Rooney’s lot hasn’t improved much this season. He performed poorly against Aston Villa, was wrapped in a mental straightjacket at Swansea City, and mostly recently there were disappointing outings against Wolfsburg in the Champions League and United’s heavy defeat to Arsenal.
Rooney’s failure, for example, to bury a regulation chance against the German side summed up his season so far: painfully underwhelming. Rooney would have buried that chance a decade ago; the contemporary version opted for something regularly seen at the Rugby World Cup.
Still, there has been the odd touch of hope for his supporters. Rooney scored a hat-trick against Club Brugge, bagged another against Ipswich Town, and his goal against Sunderland ended a Premier League drought that lasted 999 minutes. The number is apt – a call for help from a player completely out of form.
The real issue, of course, is whether Rooney’s extended slump is temporary or if the Scouser is in a state of permanent decline.
In 2011/2012 Rooney enjoyed his best Premier League return – 27 goals. With his best years in front of him, many believed it was the campaign where Rooney would establish himself as a truly world-class talent. It didn’t happen. Indeed, if recent Premier League history is a guide then supporters may already have seen the best of Rooney.
With Louis van Gaal’s side struggling for goals last season the Dutchman addressed the issue by bluntly admitting that his squad did not contain a 20-goal-a-season striker. Even with Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie a shadow of their past glories, Rooney was redeployed in midfield.
The popular suggestion was that the United captain being wasted by Van Gaal. All the Dutchman needed to do was deploy Rooney up front and United would fire again. It was always a misguided belief – Rooney has never been a prolific striker even if he is on course to become United’s all-time leading goal scorer.
Rooney has scored over 20 league goals just twice in his United career. Even when he has broken the 20-goal barrier United has not gone on to win the Premier League. In fact Rooney’s highest title-winning tally came in 2006/07 when he scored 14.
Closer inspection does Rooney few favours: he has managed to score 16 or more goals in a league campaign only four times during his United tenure. Much like Mark Hughes, Rooney might well be a scorer of great goals, but not a great goal scorer.
And the goals are drying up if the past three seasons are anything to go by.
Prelude to a decline?
The 2011/12 campaign should have provided the springboard for Rooney to embark on a sustained period of goal scoring excellence. Yet, even though he managed to bag 27 league goals there were already signs of decline. The season included a six-game Premier League scoreless streak, a reminder that the White Pele could suffer from dry spells even during his most prolific periods.
Then, in April 2012, Rooney bagged a brace against Aston Villa. Not a bad day’s work, except for the critique it drew from Sir Alex Ferguson for Rooney’s wastefulness.
“He was careless. Wayne has to play on the edge of a game, when it is really close and competitive,” Ferguson said. “When the game gets to that casual bit, he is worse than the rest of them. He gets really casual about it. It is better when he is on the edge. Then he is a marvellous player.”
Fergie’s Final Fling
The 2012/13 campaign was the start of three seismic years at United. It would be Sir Alex’s final season at Old Trafford – a decision that saved Rooney’s United career. The United manager signed van Persie that summer, who had scored 30 league goals for Arsenal the season before. As van Persie flourished, Rooney found himself part of the supporting cast.
Though Rooney helped create goals in the opening 10 Premier League games – six assists in total – his goal scoring output was desperately poor. The former Evertonian failed to score in nine matches with the exception being a brace against Stoke City. Rooney’s assists offered some compensation for his lack of goals in this run though – he was directly involved in eight.
In the second third of the season Rooney scored 10 goals in 11 games, including two huge goals at Manchester City. And when Rooney scored, United won. But Rooney failed to find the net in the final five games that season, although he did provide that pass for van Persie’s vollied goal against Aston Villa. By that time the Reds were already 15 points clear.
While no longer the key man, Rooney was still a relatively important cog in United’s chase for the title. United won 19 of the 27 games featuring Rooney and he had a direct role in 22 goals. In the 11 games where Rooney did not play, United won nine, drew one and lost one.
Once again, there were scoreless streaks. After scoring against Stoke, Rooney failed to hit the net for five games, and his final goal of the season against Reading was a prelude to a six game drought. In fact Rooney only scored in eight out of 27 games.
The Moyes Error
Fergie’s exit ushered in the short David Moyes era, and perhaps the only mark the Scot made at Old Trafford was his decision to retain Rooney at any cost, gifting the player a contract that will keep him at the club till 2019.
Rooney scored in seven of his opening 12 games, notching eight goals, atlhough United won just three matches in which the forward found the target. He then embarked on another fallow period, scoring once against Hull City, in nine league matches. Rooney was far from alone as United underperformed with Moyes at the helm, but whether he was scoring or not his impact on matches seemed to diminish, with David de Gea proving to be United’s most important player.
In particular, Rooney’s contribution against the bigger sides was limited. He took the corner that led to van Persie’s goal against Arsenal in a 1-0 win at Old Trafford. That was about as good as it got. Rooney’s two at White Hart Lane helped earn United a draw against Spurs, but he failed to make a significant contribution against City – scoring admittedly a good consolation goal at the Etihad – Everton and Liverpool.
Rooney scored eight times in the final eight games, but crucially couldn’t find a way to hurt the big guns when it mattered – and as one of the key players under Moyes, the Scouser was tasked with winning games. By the time Rooney scored his final two goals of the season against Norwich City, Moyes had gone.
Though Rooney operated at 10 for Moyes, he rarely demonstrated the guile, speed or technique to operate effectively. Despite the record-breaking acquisition of Juan Mata, Rooney still occupied the central berth, leaving Johnny Kills to struggle on the wings.
Rooney’s underachievement was masked by the abject failure of the Moyes error.
“Some of the players, I can tell you, like Rooney, I don’t think he has to learn anything more. So that will be difficult for him if the coach says: ‘You have to do it in a completely different way. Whatever you did until now, change it.'” – Mehmet Scholl.
Good theory, although in practice the former German international couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact not only was Rooney appointed captain, but with it came privileges. Rooney plays no matter how misfiring Van Gaal’s attack.
Rooney had a respectable record to start last season, with scoring eight times in his first 14 games under van Gaal. Highlights included the winner at Arsenal in November – Rooney’s last goal away from Old Trafford – his strike against Liverpool, and a red card against West Ham United for hacking down noted speedster Stewart Downing.
The goals masked a dip in performance though. Rooney’s first touch was markedly worse, his explosiveness long gone, passes were going astray and he was becoming increasingly one-paced.
Perhaps this explained van Gaal’s decision to shift Rooney into midfield – and it’s telling that the United captain accepted this move. Under Ferguson, Rooney was frustrated at not being played in his preferred position; under van Gaal he put in a steady, if unspectacular, shift in the middle of the park.
Rooney embarked on an eight match mid-season run without scoring a league goal or claiming an assist. He was facilitating the movement of the ball as van Gaal looked to impose his possession based football philosophy on United. In that period, starting away at Spurs, United won three, drew three and lost twice. Rooney broke his barren run with two goals against Sunderland, but then went on to score just two more in his final 10 games of the season. The captain’s influence seemed fleeting at best.
Two goals brought back memories of the old Rooney: the bulldozing run, calm finish and knockout celebration against Spurs. The other, against Villa, was a spectacular volley after controlling Ángel Di María’s cross. Tantalizing glimpses of glories past and a sober reminder of his decline. Rooney’s burst of speed against City, driving towards goal before choosing to pass rather than shoot, was a moment that encapsulated the kind of player he was and the kind he has now become.
If the first 14 games gave the impression that for United to win Rooney needed to be on song the following 19 fixtures suggested a team that was far less reliant on the captain. United won seven games in which Rooney didn’t score, with his only assist coming in the Manchester derby.
After the experiment with Rooney in midfield the Scouser was moved back up front this season, with Van Gaal confident that his captain would net at least 20 goals in the Premier League.
To date Rooney has contributed one goal and no assists and, in truth, has found it difficult up front on his own. Rooney now lacks the pace to beat defenders, nor does he possess the technique to create chances for teammates in attacking areas. Average performances against Spurs, Villa and Swansea, where he gave away the ball leading to the Swans’ equaliser, point to a player whose time at the top level may soon be up.
Rooney’s passing pattern is too often an ode to the sideways ball, although he still has a penchant for raking Hollywood balls that slow down the attack. If anything Rooney looks like even more of a passenger since Anthony Martial’s acquisition.
The Frenchman’s pace creates room for the flair players to operate, with Mata particularly reveling in the free space. The French international’s finishing is nerveless and has slotted into United’s system seamlessly. Indeed, Martial has given United the cutting edge that was expected of Rooney.
In the leadership stakes Rooney appears to have been surpassed by Bastian Schweinsteiger who exudes calm and authority. With each passing game the United captain looks meeker. Indeed, while much was made about Mata taking United’s penalty against Wolfsburg, it was perhaps more telling that Rooney played second fiddle to Andreas Pereira on free kicks.
What to do with Wayne?
It leaves a question: that after playing professional football since aged 16 is Rooney finally burned out? At this rate the only milestone Rooney will reach this season is his 30th birthday.
For all the data Rooney’s decline doesn’t really need numbers. There have been attempts to explain Rooney’s anonymity. Gary Neville came up with the ‘Silent Dominator’, which sounds more like a kinky fetish. Elsewhere, the system has been blamed, as has Van Gaal’s preference for playing controlled, possession football. The multitude of explanations are a misnomer. Just maybe Rooney is past his best.
Once able to rely on pace, power and explosiveness, modern day Rooney has lost all of those qualities. Rooney is struggling to find and convert chances; he’s struggling to create for others. He’s just struggling. More importantly, perhaps, he has found it difficult to reinvent himself – a player fighting against time.
Rooney’s problem is United’s problem. Tied to a long-term deal, with no other top club likely to make the moves that City and Chelsea did in 2010 and 2013, only the distant horizon provides the salvation of a move to MLS.
Rooney has, of course, achieved much during his career. He’s won trophies galore, is England’s all-time leading goal scorer, and is 15 strikes away from over taking Sir Bobby Charlton as United’s leading scorer. But neither can the silverware detract from the decline. With each passing game a return to form is increasingly becoming a forlorn hope more than an expectation.
In the meantime, Rooney’s special privileges continue, fitness excepting. And injury is perhaps the thing that Rooney needs least. In his current form, he may find it difficult to get back into the team. Privileges or not.