The modern football bubble lives week-to-week. More often than not opinion changes week-to-week as well. Take Wayne Rooney, who ended 2015 in dire form, and has begun 2016 on a scoring streak. The striker has five goals in four games, including two penalties, but some seem to have forgotten the player’s struggle throughout the previous year. Burst of form aside, the larger sample size of yesteryear has a greater bearing on our assessment of the player than four games ever could.
The Manchester United captain scored with a brilliant flick against Swansea City to kick off 2016 in style, securing a pivotal victory for a struggling team. Rooney’s critics were put to the sword and his advocates felt justified in claiming that the “Rooney of old” has reappeared to save United when the club needed him most.
The following week Rooney bagged a late penalty after an injury time foul on Memphis Depay to kick off the ‘streak’. And during this past week Rooney enjoyed his best display in a long time at Newcastle United in the Reds’ 3-3 at St. James Park, before scoring the winner at Anfield on Sunday.
Hyperbole has taken control of the narrative though – for some the Rooney of days-gone-by has returned to save his club. It is an exaggeration of course. The Englishman certainly could not have begun 2016 in worse form than he ended the past year, but to assume a player of Rooney’s age, injury history and physical condition can return to his best is surely far-fetched.
After all, Rooney turned 30 last October, and his age is exacerbated by injury and physical excursion lasting years. The striker has been a regular feature in the Premier League since April 2002, when he made his breakthrough for Everton against Southampton. In October that year he scored that now famous landmark strike against Arsenal, which paved the way for his early success on Merseyside and, later, for a £25.6 million move to the Theatre of Dreams.
At the time of going to print, Rooney’s personal website credits him with having played 689 professional games and logging 53,991 on the pitch. It is an astounding amount player time for an athlete of his age and a significant amount of wear and tear on the player’s body. Almost 14 years of Premier League football would take its toll on anyone.
This is even more relevant for Rooney, who has suffered had his share of injuries throughout a brilliant career. According to PhysioRoom Rooney has missed games through 66 various injuries and ailments since 2002. Allied to the heavy workload, it is not unfair to suggest that Rooney’s 30-year-old legs might be a bit older than the face-value. Foot, ankle, knee, hamstring; Rooney has injured it all.
This is, of course, less of an indictment on the player than an explanation for Rooney’s decline. It is a superb career that cannot defeat father time. Physical decline catches all players, although the best adapt. Over at Real Madrid Cristiano Ronaldo has moved roles to become more of a finisher rather than a dribbler. The former United player is now on the end of Madrid’s attacks rather than providing the cut and thrust from the wings. It takes less of a toll physically, and will allow Ronaldo to extend his career.
Of course Ronaldo and Rooney have both enjoyed storied careers, although that is where the fair comparison ends. Ronaldo’s level has been taken to another stratosphere – and in this one of the main differences between the players has been the Portuguese winger’s physicality and conditioning. Whilst Rooney was once a terrific athlete, with a fine combination of power and pace, Ronaldo might well be the best all around athlete and complete footballer the sport has ever seen. He is, in fact, obsessed with his condition and will star on the cover of GQ’s body issue to prove it.
By contrast Rooney has often been criticised for a lack of dedication to his craft. It probably one of the core reasons why Rooney never reached Ronaldo’s level. After all, the Scouser has always been a social drinker and smoker, and athletes pay the price down the track for the choices they make off the pitch.
Decline is not a new story though. Rooney has been on the downturn since Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season in charge of the club, with his production steadily declining. Despite a brief upturn under David Moyes, Rooney’s output has dropped from 27 goals and four assists in 2011/12 to only six goals and two assists in the league so far this campaign.
Louis van Gaal’s negative tactics certainly play a part, denying Rooney more goalscoring opportunities, but it is ultimately naïve to pin the player’s struggles on his manager. Rooney is unable to lead the line as the lone frontman – a role that has not always suited him well. On Sunday, in a one-on-one race with Kolo Toure, the Ivorian – no speedster these days – comfortably won.
Yet, Rooney does not have the first touch or creative vision to be a true number 10 either, and is famously unwilling to play wide. Ultimately this does the player no favours – the versatility that was once an asset is no longer so.
It’s also worth noting that Rooney’s best performance this season came against Newcastle in an open match. Despite the goal, his level certainly dropped against Liverpool. Indeed, the player has become a flat-track bully – his goals this season have come against Club Brugge, Ipswich Town, Sunderland, Everton, CSKA Moscow, Swansea City, Sheffield United, Newcastle and now Liverpool. Just one against a team in the top 10 of the Premier League.
Still, in the short-term United might enjoy an improvement in his production. Rooney scores in bursts, but the player of years past is long gone. In time Rooney would do well to adjust his style if he wants to prolong his career. It is probably long over due.
No, the former Rooney is not back, but he might just be relevant again.