Wayne Rooney's performance for Manchester United against Oțelul Galați should not be mistaken for a long-term solution in the team's midfield.
Sometimes Manchester United’s line up appears to have been drawn out of a raffle. Wayne Rooney started in midfield last night in what was a painful advertisement of the team’s chronic midfield malaise. The Croxteth man was adequate enough, but his enthusiasm would make him a competent goalkeeper or defender; the crux of his selection in a deeper role is that he is wasted.
On what was another stultifying Champions League evening watching United, Sir Alex Ferguson had evidently fired up the Delorean and gone back to 2006 to for a solution to cure his midfield ills. Yes, it was even a problem position as far back as five-and-a-half-years ago when Alan Smith, John O’Shea, Rio Ferdinand and Rooney occupied the middle two slots after Roy Keane’s departure. And to quote Doc Brown, we saw some ‘serious s**t’.
Notably, away at Blackburn when United were 4-1 down at one point and Ferdinand was sent off, the fish out of water cluelessly running around gasping for air. At Middlesbrough in October they did lose 4-1 with Smith in midfield, which provoked analyst Keane to query, ‘What is he doing there?’ on the infamously unaired MUTV ‘Play the Pundit’ show.
The cons outweigh the pros with Rooney in midfield. Okay, he offers silk, steel and a passable impression of Paul Scholes (as opposed to the club-footed Brazilian Anderson), but he’s only playing there because Manchester United’s midfield is so dire.
As someone who refuses to serenade him since he flirted with Manchester City, it’s difficult not to feel sympathy with just how much he has been messed around with by Ferguson. He has played as a lone striker, a winger and a midfielder when he was born to play in the number 10 role – the trequartista in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1. He has inhabited the role brilliantly alongside Louis Saha, Javier Hernández and Danny Welbeck, yet is often the sacrificial lamb whose talent is subordinated in favour of graft.
Warming up prior to matches now, he will drill 50-yard passes to a coach positioned on the halfway line. This is a prerequisite for a number 10, because the onus is on them to link up the play and occasionally drop into the regista’s domain for a variety of reasons; eg. a different angle, opening up space for a team-mate or drawing an opponent out of position. Rooney is so eager to constantly be on the ball though that it is ironically his downfall. Occasionally frustrated, he will drop as far back as into his own half just to get a couple of touches when he hasn’t been instructed to. And consequently Ferguson has capitalised on this.
It’s no good having the ammunition if someone can’t pull the trigger. Rooney has 11 goals already this season.
Mercifully the Scot confirmed that the role is on an interim basis due to injuries to Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick, but his candour also let the cat out of the bag. Incredulously he said that Darren Fletcher ‘doesn’t play every four days for us now. Seven days is fine for him'. So if Fletcher’s fitness was such an issue, why didn’t he bring in a midfielder – even as a stop-gap – to compensate?
United’s mentality – one shared by a number of deluded supporters – is so arrogant that you have to be world-class to play for them, that the absolute best is what should only be considered. At this juncture, there are perhaps two players in the current squad who can be bracketed as ‘great’. The grim reality is that Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Queens Park Rangers and Everton all boast midfielders who would comfortably improve the Reds.
Furthermore, Anderson – another victim of Ferguson’s square-pegs-in-round-holes tomfoolery – re-affirmed that his time to make it at United has passed. His ‘potential’ has been missing for over four years now and invariably he imitates a Sunday League impression of Scholes as he spoons the ball 20 yards ahead of his ‘target’. Evidently disgruntled at his substitution last night, he was fortunate enough to have started after his weekend exclusion from the squad at Everton. But his return was such a cataclysmic disaster that he appeared not to have left the turf after the City debacle.
Even Ferguson, a great poker player in the face of the media, is struggling to hide how severe a problem he has with his team’s middle spine. You can even smell the fear of desperation with dropping Rooney that far back, since yesteryear he would fearlessly have played a promising youngster in the middle rather than someone out of position.
Has he even contemplated the ramifications of not playing him further afield? Welbeck and Hernández are terrific foils for Rooney, but as a pair do not naturally complement one another and are naïve in comparison to the canny number 10. Dimitar Berbatov meanwhile again looked insecure as he was shackled with ease by the Oțelul rear-guard while Michael Owen picked up his obligatory autumn injury. It’s no good having the ammunition if someone can’t pull the trigger. Rooney has 11 goals already this season.
The conclusion is that Ferguson has been so taken aback by his porous midfield that he will now flood it as an insurance policy. The area deserves to be scrutinised as much as Arsenal’s defence was earlier in the campaign (and still is), while there are a pile of questions which contradict his ‘comfortable’ prerogative with the squad and assertion that there is ‘no value’. How much was Scott Parker? Yann M’Vila and Javier Martínez are plying their trade in the Europa League. Value.
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