As statements go, Wayne Rooney’s performance under Aston Villa’s Friday night lights, said everything. Blowing hard by the end, in Manchester United’s second successive 1-0 victory, the Scouser looked far from match sharp. In truth the game passed Rooney by: second best to every ball, rarely involved in the visitors’ limp attack and one-paced when in possession. It was one of the former Evertonian’s very worst performances in Red.
Rooney’s nondescript contribution in the Midlands might pass with little comment had it been a one-off, but the Scouser has looked off-the-pace through four pre-season games and United’s opening Premier League fixtures. It is a level of absenteeism now so stark that Rooney’s position in the side is being question by more than just a vocal fringe.
It would take a prolonged downturn for the mass of United’s support to pivot against the 29-year-old striker, but the mood on Friday night – at least in the polarising world of social media – was distinctly dark.
After all, Rooney’s minimal contribution extends beyond this summer’s early matches to much of the previous campaign, where he scored just 12 goals in a mix of attacking and midfield roles. When deployed in midfield or wide roles Rooney contributed eight goals, two assists, and just a touch over 1.6 key passes per game across 19 matches. Up front f0ur goals came in 14 matches. Performances? Underwhelming all.
The campaign before Rooney’s perceived hard work under David Moyes won hearts and minds, even if the Scouser’s tactical indiscipline might have cost more than it gained. His contribution stretched to 19 goals in 37 matches as United’s principal striker in a fundamentally disastrous season.
Beyond the numbers it is fair to observe that Rooney did little to bring United’s standard to an acceptable level under Moyes, or the squad into the fold as ailing manager and players became ever more divided.
In the present – a lack of goals aside – Rooney’s numbers look particular shoddy against Spurs and Villa, where he was involved in neither the Reds’ attacking nor defensive phases of the game on the opening day. Rooney’s two strikes against Spurs were both off target, while he made little in the way further attacking contribution.
Of the striker’s 29 successful passes at Old Trafford 19 went backwards. Even if that data point is mitigated by a player working with his back to goal, Rooney failed with his one attempted cross and a singular attempted take-on. Of the two chances Rooney created last weekend both were passes that led to a hopeful long-range shot.
His lethargy on the ball almost cost United the winning goal, and as the hosts’ go-to attacking focal-point, Rooney was very much an absent landlord.
It was even worse against Villa. The forward took no shots, took on no opponents, delivered no crosses and created just one chance – a 10 yard sidewards pass to Memphis Depay more than 45 yards from goal. Memphis’ determined run led to a shot; hardly one in the credit column for Rooney.
Once again most of Rooney’s passes went backwards, with the Scouser then dropping frustratingly deep at all the wrong times, only to give the ball away as United’s attack broke down. His first touch was as poor as at any time over the past decade.
Yet, this was supposed to be Rooney’s season. Restored to lead United’s attack at number nine, with the target of reaching more than 20 goals set by Louis van Gaal, Rooney has been proffered an opportunity to restore his lustre of greatness. Indeed, much of Van Gaal’s tactical focus is on the Scouser’s shoulders this season – a central spoke around which United’s myriad attacking midfielders can work.
They cannot if Rooney remains as static and ineffective as this.
“Our aim is to play with Rooney in the striker’s position,” said Van Gaal earlier this summer. “We have confidence that he can score more than 20 goals there. That is more than the strikers last year.”
Rooney, it seems, agrees. Number nine is Rooney’s “best position,” with the striker holding “no doubts” that he can score “20 goals or more” this season.
“The two seasons I have really done that as a lone striker have been my two best goalscoring seasons,” he added. “I am ready to take on that mantle and be the one who gets the goals for this team. If I play up there again this season, then I can get the goals. It is where I like and it is where I will play.”
An alternate analysis, of course, is that in 13 seasons as a professional Rooney has only twice scored more than 20 league goals in a campaign: 2009/10 and 2011/12. Even with the caveat of being deployed in multiple, mostly attacking, roles during his career, Van Gaal’s demand bucks the tide of history. It also places far too many of United’s hopes in one player’s hands. Or feet.
Of course, two games into the season, there is much to mitigate short-term criticism, if not the longer-term analysis. Rooney has traditionally taken some time – as many as 10 games – to reach true match fitness. Rooney has also tended to score in bursts before dropping back into a patch of poor form. The sharpness may come, followed by purple patch in the autumn, and then another stint of mediocrity.
There is an alternative, of course: to move on from Rooney, whatever his profile, outsized pay-packet and “special privileges.” And with the club seemingly not ready to acquire a top-class striker before 1 September that alternative can only be found in a change of tactics or of personnel.
Van Gaal has sought out neither just yet.
In fact Dutchman’s caution has come to the fore, with two holding players deployed in central midfield in each of United’s six games since the summer break. Meanwhile, the trio of attacking players used in support of Rooney has, in each match, included at least one player outwit his preferred role.
Last Saturday Ashley Young and Juan Mata were joined by debutant Memphis, who started in a central role. On Friday Mata – wide right – and Memphis played either side of Adnan Januzaj at number 10.
Yet, the decision to use two holding, together with the jumble of attacking players, and Rooney’s ponderous performances, have lent a stilted feel to the Reds’ attack. And just three shots on target and two goals in the opening games.
It leaves open the question of whether United’s verve might return both with Ander Herrera and Bastian Schweinsteiger restored to the side, Mata deployed more centrally and – bolder still – Rooney benched. One of Januzaj, James Wilson or Javier Hernández could hardly do worse in a striking role; Herrera would add a zip so far absent to United’s passing; Schweinsteiger genuine authority in attacking and defensive phases.
Van Gaal has signalled few, if any, positive attacking changes though. Quite the opposite, with Januzaj’s position at risk, despite a goalscoring game on Friday. Van Gaal’s search for control through possession continues; Januzaj’s flair perhaps a risk too far for the Dutchman whose early career flair has given way to a more pragmatic approach.
“I like a second striker in that position more than a third midfielder,” said Van Gaal of Januzaj’s selection. “That is why, for example, Herrera is not playing. But we have to show more ball capacity. We had too many unnecessary losses of possession as a team and Adnan Januzaj had unnecessary ball losses.”
Three, in fact. Far less than Rooney. But then the Belgian youngster holds none of Rooney’s sway over the coach. Whether Rooney can deliver on Van Gaal’s promise remains in doubt.