Wayne Rooney, the 17-year-old boy who burst on the scene with that goal against Arsenal in 2003, is now firmly a man. His coming-of-age born in part of necessity, in part of a growing maturity. Rooney’s performances for club and country this season – now out of the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo – have been truly magnificent. He is a player shorn of the tactical constraints that have held him back in recent seasons and is clearly enjoying the extra responsibility now placed on him. Rooney’s potential has always marked him out as one of the world’s finest youngsters. Potential no more. To the elite of Ronaldo, Kaká, and Messi, now add Rooney.
The boy from the estates of Croxteth has always possessed the right tools. His natural skills unlimited and determination limitless. But the start of this season is the longest sustained period when Rooney has put all of his attributes together at one time, resulting in a run of goalscoring and eye-catching performances.
Too often exiled from the centre of the action in a tactical system that has pushed him to the left wing, Rooney was handicapped by forces outside his control in recent years. While Rooney has always been the natural heartbeat of United’s side, but it has often suffered a murmur.
Manager Sir Alex Ferguson defended his use of Rooney from the left, arguing that the striker benefited from cutting onto his right foot. In truth this argument was always a red-herring. Rooney’s deployment from the left a compromised forced in part by Sir Alex’ determination to use three central midfielders in the biggest games but also from the need to offer the defensive protection Ronaldo could (or would) not.
It was a system that starved Rooney of the ball, forced the player to defend and reduced his ability to cause damage in the final third. Last seasons Champions League final was the last straw for many fans. It seems for the player himself. Rooney barely saw the ball that night in Rome and subsequently spent the summer arguing for a return to a central striking role.
Ronaldo’s departure has liberated more than Rooney tactically. That the striker is now seeing far more of the ball in forward areas is without doubt, perhaps more importantly there has been a mental effect on the player. Rooney has taken greater responsibility to win games himself. The challenge of losing the world’s finest player is one that Rooney realises he can now meet.
Importantly, this responsibility is being chanelled in a far more effective way. Rooney is now prepared to play is a more selfish way, which ultimately benefiting the team. Deployed as a central striker, with Dimitar Berbatov ‘in-the-hole’ against Tottenham, Rooney was full of pace, running and menace. Perhaps even more so when United was reduced to ten men. The number of occasions that Rooney got caught offside is evidence of how far forward the former Everton man played on Saturday. For England Rooney is playing just as centrally but far deeper with the Aston Villa striker Emile Heskey the target man. Rooney has excelled in both positions.
Goals will transform Rooney from a great player, to the world’s finest. In the past Rooney has tended to score in bursts. But there is compelling evidence to suggest that his start of five goals in five Premier League games for United will be sustained. The striker has also scored 11 in his past 10 international fixtures under Fabio Capello’s stewardship.
It’s a transformation that could fire both club and country to glory this season.