What, exactly, does Louis van Gaal see in Rooney?
Manchester United’s 5-3 loss to Leicester City on Sunday saw Wayne Rooney deployed at the tip of a midfield diamond. Rooney’s ineptitude at ‘number 10’ has often been noted on these pages and suspicion is that Juan Mata or even the callow Adnan Januzaj would have done a far better job as United’s chief creator.
At the very least, Mata would have kept possession better than the former Evertonian and, perhaps, would have prevented some of Leicester’s frequent counter-attacks as a result. After all, Rooney’s pass completion rate of 83 per cent is 10 percentage points lower than the Spaniard’s typical number. Moreover, Rooney simply does not have the first touch to navigate tight quarters and 57.9 per cent of his passes this season have been backwards as a result.
The argument that Van Gaal is “indulging” his captain holds little sway though – the Dutchman has a long history of dropping the seemingly undroppable. Instead, a careful study of Van Gaal’s tactics reveals a genuine reason for deploying Rooney in the hole.
Ideally, United’s midfield might include a holder, runner and a creator. Danny Blind, Ander Herrera and Angel di Maria, respectively, fulfilled these roles against Leicester at the weekend. United’s diamond leaves a spare man and Rooney can play each of these roles effectively, though perhaps not expertly. Mata, on the other hand, can only really act as the creator – as the Spaniard’s muted substitute appearance in a deeper role demonstrated.
Rooney’s well-roundedness might well appeal to Van Gaal’s Dutch sensibilities, although the veteran is hardly a sentimental man. The Dutchman’s midfield diamond, or the 3-4-1-2 deployed earlier this season for that matter, were each born of a harsh reality. It was easier to acquire an upgrade on Danny Welbeck than it is to completely restock United’s wingers. Paying £60 million for di Maria makes much sense given that the Argentine’s excellence in a midfield diamond dates back to his days at Benfica.
The former Real Madrid player has also frequently ventured out to the left flank in his early appearances for United to provide a genuine presence out wide. For example, di Maria whipped in several beautiful crosses during his short tenure at United and, the thinking goes, Rooney is better equipped than Mata to take advantage. Herrera, meanwhile, can and does make late runs but he has not yet demonstrated aerial presence on par with the Englishman.
It comes with the role of creator, of course, but the Argentine has also been rather wasteful with the ball. United’s number 10, therefore, has to mop up plenty of loose balls – a task Mata simply cannot do given his lack of brawn or weaknesses off-the-ball. Essentially, Rooney has become the new Ji-Sung Park in Van Gaal’s system – albeit one that packs more of a punch.
A critical issue, though, is Rooney’s positioning. Supporters at the Leicester game often witnessed Rooney standing dumb in the middle during the offensive phase, offering little and often blocking the path to di Maria. Suspicion is that Rooney is simply not tactically sophisticated enough to comprehend United’s nuanced tactics. Training ground drills should take care of this, although Van Gaal has been in charge for three months now.
Another issue is Rooney’s lack of first touch. Rooney often drifts deep in search of space to mask his lack of technique. With three central midfielders, such movement only adds to the congestion in the centre of the park. It also leaves Robin van Persie and Falcao far too isolated in a system that was meant to use Rooney as its main creator. With nobody in the hole di Maria was often forced to cross from deep.
In advanced positions Rooney often pings the ball straight back – again very reminiscent of Park. Two creative midfielders in di Maria and Herrera ensure that this isn’t a major problem and, as long as Rooney remains positionally disciplined, creativity should not be an issue. Even if Rooney resorts to his typical, tactically inept ways, di Maria and Herrera have the quality to dribble their way into the final third.
As usual with Rooney, everything depends on other players and the argument for more specialist players makes much sense. There is simply no denying that Mata is the better creator. Indeed, with four centrally positioned midfielders, ball retention eliminates the need for Rooney at all.
Yet, Rooney’s deployment in the hole hints at a bigger issue – one that van Gaal seems to be acutely aware of: defence. Having failed to recruit a world-class centre back Tyler Blackett and Johnny Evans have been cruelly exposed this season. At King Power Stadium, Marcos Rojo was noticeably more reserved than Rafael da Silva on the right. For the first time in van Gaal’s Old Trafford tenure, David de Gea consistently cleared long. Evidently, van Gaal has lost confidence in United’s ability to play out from back. Rooney’s aerial presence then becomes a real asset.
Blind’s lack of pace is another factor – the former Ajax Player of Year simply cannot be counted on to stop quick breaks. Until United’s defence can confidently maintain possession, the side will be forced long. Until the defence can be trusted, Rooney must play.
It is worth noting that Luke Shaw has not yet played for the Reds. Phil Jones, arguably United’s best central defender, will also soon be back from injury. Once the first choice back four is up and running Mata is likely to come back into contention – and Rooney’s place may be at more risk than many believe. In there interim the Spaniard is advised to use his head and remain patient.