The Man United maestro is looking to secure a fifth title tonight
Tonight Wayne Rooney could win his fifth Premier League title if Manchester United beat Aston Villa, but the position from which he sees out the match is from certain. Will he play up front, in the hole, deeper in midfield or even be left sitting on the bench?
Last weekend against Stoke City he played in central midfield, earning praise and a man of the match award for a good display against a team who bypass the centre of the park. Ho hum. On Wednesday he returned to his usual post on the frontlines against West Ham, looking off the pace and untidy on the ball.
As he plods on into the summer months, it’s fair to say that this has not been a vintage year for Rooney. Overweight and underwhelming, his statistics still hold water – third in the league’s assist table with 9 and 12 goals scored – but the nature of his performances of late have been far from convincing. Unfit and unhappy, something has got to give to break the stale cycle of pedestrian approach play and a fragile, psychological first touch.
Rooney’s bloated frame is an obvious, unedifying symptom of his lifestyle while persisting rumours of still-drunk appearances at training puncture the mythological work ethic that has grown around him with age. Once regarded as the future of English football, Rooney has regressed into a boozed up throwback to the amateurish antics of the 1970s.
Teams aren’t the only sufferers of what experts have dubbed “being in transition”. Players can also contract the infamous no-mans-land malaise that cloaks those who fall between the gaps of development. Reinvention is vital to a footballer’s career. Michael Owen, football’s answer to a dredge fishing boat, exploited his niche to exhaustion, relying on the unsustainable methods of pace and youth until his catch died off completely. The former European footballer of the year now starves on the bench.
Whether through minor tweaks or major overhauls, players must adapt in order to survive the ravages of injury, age and tactical trends lest they become overrun and rendered obsolete. At the age of 27 Wayne Rooney has already reinvented himself twice during his time at Manchester United. Upon arriving from Everton in 2004 he was moulded into the perfect foil for Cristiano Ronaldo, becoming a clever utility forward out on the left wing or through the centre.
His second transformation followed the Portuguese’s departure in 2009; a move that thrust the central responsibility of the team’s main goal threat firmly upon the Englishman’s broad shoulders. In order to keep up with demand and carry the burden, Rooney’s ego inflated creating a more selfish, single-minded player better suited to deliver as his team’s Number 9. That season following Ronaldo’s exit, he scored 34 goals.
With his chaotic lifestyle taking its toll and depleted form now confirmed as a long-term problem, a third renovation may be required to refresh and refit Wayne Rooney for life in Manchester United’s understaffed midfield.
On paper, the former Evertonian looks to have all the prerequisites to become a modern day Bryan Robson. Box-to-box with a big game appetite, a proven goalscoring record and a stocky, powerful build, Rooney could be exactly what’s missing from the team, especially with Anderson often unable to play or fill a full 90 minutes with action.
Unfortunately, many of these celebrated pillars to Rooney’s game have long since crumbled due to neglect and a change in priorities. These columns must be rebuilt if he stands any chance of mastering a third chapter of his career. Although the numbers confirm Rooney, alongside Michael Carrick, covers more ground per match than many his team mates, he appears to do so while running in treacle. Gone is that sense of urgency and zip that once pervaded his movement and football.
Whether that verve has been lost through drink, junk food and smoking or a deep-sighed warping of his once fanatical enthusiasm for the game, it’s impossible to say, but the transition from United’s enabling catalyst to the club’s lone target man certainly concentrated Rooney’s game into a far more one-dimensional focus.
As a match-winning striker, his increased sense of self began to impose limits on his once unselfish work rate. The Wayne Rooney of today believes his own hype as the man to make things happen, and so more mundane jobs, such as marking Pirlo in England’s defeat to Italy in Euro 2012 or stopping Contraeo in the first leg against Real Madrid this season, are left incomplete or half-done. No longer content with sacrificing himself to the cause and suffocating his target, Rooney now steps off in order to ready himself to play the hero at a moments notice.
Let’s no forget that his hungry appetite for playing the protagonist developed through the needs of his team rather than personal crusade of vanity, and perhaps the realisation of the task at hand alongside Carrick and Cleverley may inspire a similar shift in mind-set.
United certainly need more bodies in the centre of the park, and with Shinji Kagawa now at the club and talk of another top-end striker arriving in the summer, Rooney’s services may no longer be required in attack. Influencing the offensive from deep shouldn’t be a problem either. While Scholes is the squad’s undoubted master of ball distribution and achingly smart, direct long passes wide, Rooney certainly has some of that vision even if his sloppy technical chops often fail to execute his mind’s wishes consistently.
If not Bryan Robson-esque, then Rooney could development into a player more in the Frank Lampard mould – bristling with goals and attacking drive from deep. Such a recasting would in some ways be the inverse of his current role when played up front, beginning high before drifting into the hole to surge forwards for the finish. Why not leave the movement in the final third to those fitter and more mobile, and instead focus on bursting up from the heart of the team like an Alien zygote.
Moving Rooney into midfield is not an entirely new proposition. In the Champions League last year he played in the middle against Otelul Galati, producing a similarly eye-catching if overprized performance to his more recent game against Stoke; beautified by the quality of the opposition. It’s clearly a possibility Ferguson is aware of and interested in.
Without adequate cover for Michael Carrick, beyond the home guard of Scholes and Giggs, this season Rooney may well have been the midfielder’s unspoken emergency cover in the case of a prolonged injury lay off. The lack of an alternative in the squad is too quizzical to understand otherwise.
Of course, the changes required of Rooney by Alex Ferguson haven’t always been good for his England career. Rooney’s inability to revert back to playing as a Number 10 for his country has been cited as one of the key factors in Fabio Capello’s disastrous World Cup – a marked contrast to the dominant qualifying campaign that preceded it.
For many who recall the sheer sense of destiny that surrounded the young, unpredictable forward, his development has also fallen short of national expectations too. Under Ferguson’s the title-winning tutelage however, Rooney’s early, chaotic abundance was refined into a player of consistent if less spectacular contribution.
There is a worry that Wayne Rooney’s touted transformation into a midfield general may stutter into a repeat of Alan Smith’s undignified labour in the centre of the field as Ferguson struggled to find a position and purpose for the crocked forgotten man. In contrast, converting the forward into a more multi-purpose player once more may allow him to recover some of the magic that inspired his slaying of Arsenal’s Invincibles with his first professional goal in 2002.
At present, Rooney plays as if haunted by the peak years of his youth and at times looks visibly unset by the mid-life crisis rut his career has veered off into. Moving abroad or changing the scenery doesn’t seem likely, so a refurbishment is his only hope to regain some direction as he approaches 30.
Inoffensive cameos against teams who lack talent in the middle, or sides whose long ball game bypass the midfield all together, are one thing. Whether Rooney can vanquish his demons and rediscover his professionalism and drive is another. The prospect of seeing him in midfield against Aston Villa is intriguing. Paul Lambert’s side are youthful and full of energy, yet still inexperienced and error prone. Tonight’s game could be a good test for Rooney and his ability to wrest control and dictate a match from deep.
With his overindulgent physique and unreliable touch, he may never be a world class midfielder in Europe, but in the open spaces of the Premier League, Rooney can add value to Manchester United’s team by dropping back. A title winning outing in the middle against Villa would be a step in the right direction.