Wayne Rooney is a complicated character. For someone whose game is based significantly on physicality, he is cavalier about his health. But the probably exaggerated tabloid stories of cigarettes and alcohol aside, the former Everton player has become something of a ‘jack of all trades’ at Manchester United, albeit a very good one.
And like his old Merseyside mate Steven Gerrard, the Scouser’s best position and role remains unclear.
Rooney was a prodigy. A Premier League débutant at sixteen, the Liverpudlian set Goodison Park alight. He swiftly moved to bigger stages, England and Manchester United. The England striker was the star of Euro 2004 and then went on to score a hat-trick on his United debut. Big things beckoned for the then eighteen year old.
The striker was the single bright spot in the dark transition years during which John O’Shea often featured in central midfield, Cristiano Ronaldo was merely a trick merchant and pundits and fans alike were calling for Sir Alex Ferguson’s head. With Van Nisterlooy up-front as a traditional number nine, Rooney was liberated – free to try anything that struck his fancy. Fans called him the white Pelé for he had the potential to live up to that lofty appellation.
There has always been a sense of naïveté about Rooney – at least on the pitch. He perhaps worked a little too hard. The striker got wound up by his opponents or even his teammates. And maybe it is Rooney’s enthusiasm that led him to his current predicament.
Even in 2007/08, with United steeped in avant-garde tactics, Rooney more often than not was the ‘reference point’ striker. The Englishman roamed but not to the extent of Carlos Tevez and Ronaldo. It is unclear whether Rooney unselfishly remained more stationary to give a focal point to the team or whether Sir Alex explicitly instructed the Scouser to do so. Certainly Rooney was a better candidate for that particular role than Tevez, who is comparatively smaller and weaker. But it remains a mystery why Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t preferred for that quasi target man role, given his aerial superiority.
Then the following year Ronaldo stepped up to the role and Rooney was very much shunned out to the left to play the defensive winger role the Portuguese could not.
The following season marked a crucial change in Rooney though – he became a destructive force, scoring heaps of goals but creating very little. Rooney no longer scored scorching volleys and crazy lobs but mundane tap-ins and headers, with determination and power and not skill and imagination. It is a sad thought for pure of mind that the player who scored that volley against Newcastle is no more.
Rooney remains the creative heartbeat of both United and England but that fact reflects more the relative dearth of creativity in both sides than Rooney’s excellence. It is hard not to blame Ferguson for the metamorphosis. A season of mopping up after Ronaldo “ruined” Rooney but the Scot had to put United before the player. Ronaldo, like Cantona, is talented enough to be treated differently. It is his flexibility – Ferguson’s aptitude for seeing the heart of football matters and his ruthlessness in carrying out the plan – that lies at the very core of the United manager’s success.
But has Sir Alex truly “ruined” Rooney?
For one thing, Rooney never was and never will be a true number ten. His technique is good but remains primitive compared to the likes of Xavi Hernández and Paul Scholes. Rooney’s touches are not so good that the England international can easily escape the clutches of markers – a must in every playmaker’s toolbox. Crucially Rooney lacks composure, the essential coolness of head. He is more staff-sergeant leading the charge with the enlisted than a major directing the matters from afar.
The Englishman’s play remains largely bipolar – he either plays it extremely safe or extremely risky. At 25, it is probably too late for the United player to learn how to dictate tempo; how to effortlessly link the extreme aspects of his play.
Undoubtedly Rooney’s skills at number ten have regressed. Fortunately Rooney’s number nine skills have come leaps and bounds. Despite his average stature, the Liverpudlian became an aerial presence. His finishing and positioning, especially in the box, have improved noticeably. If Rooney was a hot-headed creator in his youth, the United striker is now a seasoned forward who can also create. Instead of becoming a good – but not great – playmaker, Rooney has become a great ‘nine-and-a-half.’
Andrei Shevchenko is primarily known for his finishing – or the lack of it – in Britain but was hailed as a “universal player” by Valeriy Lobanovskyi, the legendary Dynamo Kyiv coach. During his Milan years, the Ukrainian used a cache of skills to form deadly partnerships with a cadre of trequartisti. In Carlo Ancelotti’s decidedly central systems, where it wasn’t uncommon to see Kaká, Rui Costa, Clarence Seedorf and Andrea Pirlo all at the same time, Shevchenko’s completeness truly shone. The Ukrainian’s movements compensated for the lack of natural width and created room for the playmakers to strut their stuff.
The man himself sees Rooney in a similar mould.
“He has probably the biggest working area in the modern game,” said Shevchenko.
“He moves constantly to try to fill the channels in attack, at the same time creating spaces for his team-mates. It’s true to say he can do anything on the pitch.”
The former Chelsea player formed a deadly partnership with Pippo Inzaghi, the man “born offside.” With Javier Hernández more than comfortable playing off the shoulders of the last defender, Rooney’s budding partnership with the Mexican is an intriguing prospect.