The Prodigal Son – remarkably appropriate given the plot of the parable from which the phrase originates – returned on Saturday. Despite the sporadic chants of “Rooney! Rooney!”, the ambience was decidedly uneasy – it is unclear whether Wayne Rooney’s former hero status among the fans will ever be restored.
Rooney’s thirty odd minute stint was average; he looked fit, forced a good save but missed a rather easy chance.
Most fans expected more from Rooney, given the numerical advantage Manchester United enjoyed in the second half. Rooney’s petulant and decidedly unprofessional media stunt over the contract and the resulting mega-pound deal put great pressure on the striker to recapture the form of last season.
Rooney partnered Javier Hernández upfront in a classical 442 for the last 30 minutes of Saturday’s match. Notice though that Rooney has spent much of the Wigan game on the left (see graphic, below). Rooney has always had a tendency towards the left.
He might not know how to spell the word ‘professional’ but Rooney’s reading of the game is excellent. The 25-year-old naturally looks to roam in search of space – particularly towards the left – when he plays as a striker.
Fabio Capello, before the disastrous change to a 442 in the World Cup, took advantage of the Rooney’s leftie tendency by deploying Steven Gerrard on the left-wing. Gerrard, a right footed player, looked to cut inside and Rooney often moved to the left to indulge the Liverpool captain.
England, notoriously devoid of intelligent movement, did well in the qualifying campaign mostly because of the fluidity brought on by the link between Gerrard and Rooney.
At United, before the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney was often deployed on the left either as a defensive winger – just like Park Ji-Sung – or as a modern winger. Except, unlike Park, Rooney can actually pass, cross and shoot, of course!
Indeed, with Hernández doing well, deploying Rooney on the left to accommodate the Mexican and Nani sounds tempting. Certainly Rooney is a good left winger. He is no Lionel Messi when it comes to trickery but his physical strength and speed afford him the direct, penetrating runs.
Perhaps his movement and all around game intelligence, the strength of Rooney, would serve him better on the flank, given the current set up.
On the left, Rooney drifts in-field in search of space, not the other way around. This movement is also aided by being right-footed and he is no slouch with his left meaning that many of reasons why Nani does so well on the right apply to Rooney. In other words, Rooney the winger will move towards the goal.
It is hard to argue with statistics though. In 2008/09, when he was often deployed on the left, Rooney scored 20 times in 49 appearances. Last season’s figure was 34 goals in 44 appearances.
Of course, the improvement in Rooney’s scoring rate can’t solely be attributed to the change in position. Rooney’s records in 2007/08 (18 in 43) when he was deployed in partnership with Tevez and in 2006/07 – (23 in 55) when he played just behind Louis Saha, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Alan Smith – the position commonly thought as Rooney’s best – provide strong counter-examples.
The caveat of course is that in these two seasons Rooney notched up many more assists than he did in 2009/10 but he didn’t put in nearly enough to offset the relative lack of goals.
It is also hard to argue that wingers, particularly the modern kind, cannot be as prolific as more central forwards when Cristiano Ronaldo continues to bang in goals from the flank. Moreover, when Rooney is up-front, he sees less of the ball. Therefore the team doesn’t take the full advantage of his strengths.
On the flank Rooney sees more of the ball and consequently does more with it. In the current United set-up, there is a distinct lack of drive from the central midfield. The creativity must come United’s width and deploying Rooney there is an obvious solution. And since Rooney can play as a modern winger, he can easily be accommodated in United’s new 442.
Rooney can also play in the hole with two holding midfielders behind him as pivots. It’s a compelling argument that many United supporters take up. Deployed in the hole, Rooney is afforded even greater room and scope to move around.
We must also keep in mind the impending retirement of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs and the pair’s declining role in the team. And the transfer market is no less difficult to navigate. Paulo Henrique Chagas de Lima – ‘Ganso’ – and Javier Pastore, two of the most exciting young playmakers, are not on the books of Europe’s elite clubs and remain realistic targets for United – even in the winter transfer market since neither plays in the Champions League.
There are also well-established players like Wesley Sneijder and Bastian Schweinsteiger who could be available – for a price.
However, a left winger of similar stature and/or promise is much harder to find. Juan Mata and Stevan Jovetić are perhaps the only two names that come to mind.
A central playmaker remains more of a priority than a left winger though. United already has Gabriel Obertan, Bébé, Park and Tom Cleverley in the wing department. Aside from promising youngsters like Ravel Morrison and Magnus Eikrem there is a distinct lack of playmakers at United.
As tempting as it is to play Rooney as a trequartista, it is surely be better in the long-term to start playing the former Evertonian on the left.
All the off-field histrionics notwithstanding, Rooney has blossomed into a fine player in his time at United. He will do well just about anywhere across the attacking midfield stratum and up-front.
But with the promise Hernández and Federico Macheda are showing, the lack of a classy left winger at the club, and the potential availability of promising playmakers in the market, the left beckons for Rooney.