Wayne Rooney’s selection as a midfielder is nothing new. However for the first time his selection in this role is by choice rather than necessity.
It seems like only yesterday that his fleeting partnership with Rio Ferdinand (!) in the engine room was being analysed by all and sundry. As recently as last season Rooney doggedly served in the middle of the park as frugality replaced creativity after the derby disaster. Those lucky enough to have observed the young Rooney develop at Everton have regularly lauded his ability to play in any role. On the rare occasion when that is the case for a footballer at the highest level of competition, then the logical choice is midfield. The talents of our number 10 point to midfield as a natural home.
A European Debut that justified the hype.
I like many have opined the loss of the 2008 version of Rooney - a fearless ball of energy with explosive pace. Since those exciting early days we have witnessed Wayne the selfless winger, Wayne the penalty box poacher, and latterly Wayne the creator. Whichever of these roles is adopted, clear assets of the young Rooney’s game were sacrificed. As a wide sentry, industry replaced invention whilst toiling as just another member of Ronaldo’s supporting cast. Tasked with playing as number nine, lung-busting charges back to make tackles provoked reproach from a manager preaching energy conservation for when the time came to strike. A lack of like-minded players in close proximity meant his displays as an enganche underwhelmed despite the mask of goals. It seems a shame that in trying to best meet the needs of our team we have conversely capped Rooney’s potential to affect the game. No disrespect intended but Rooney is no Romario – the whole concept of lying in wait, content to stay on the periphery until scenting an opportunity is anathema to his instincts. It strikes me that in the effort to curb the risky elements of Rooney’s game – temperament and tactical naivety – we have at times lost sight of what made him such a phenomenon in the first place.
Bryan Robson had the drive and determination to dominate.
Everything about Rooney’s style is of a player at his best when at the core of the action. In view of our abundance of options further forward, and steel deficiency in central midfield, it is entirely sensible for Rooney to concentrate his efforts on playing central midfield. One moment on Sunday underlined this for me – Rooney received the ball into feet in a tight space on the edge of the centre circle, as you would expect Tiote was instantly on him niggling away, yet the body strength of one time boxing prospect comfortably held off the Ivorian before laying the ball to Kagawa in space. The comparisons with Keane and Robson were hard to avoid. Not that at this stage Rooney is anywhere near their quality in the centre of the park, but he stands alone as the player in our squad capable of bossing the midfield zone whilst maintaining a potent attacking threat. The complaint remains valid that the club hasn’t invested in a specialist but no amount of moaning will change that fact before January at the earliest. Such is our attacking talent that our goal threat is not dramatically reduced by the redeployment of Rooney.
The Diamond allowed Rooney to sparkle.
Whether this can work in a system other than a diamond is debatable. The security of three other players in the same area allows Rooney to join the attack without fear of compromising our ability to repel any counter. Similarly, the presence of two from Cleverley, Kagawa, Anderson and even Powell means that we have players capable of linking defence to attack should Rooney find himself using his much needed tenacity to aid Carrick in front of our defence. In a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 the likelihood is that either Rooney would find himself regularly too deep to assert his talents in attack, or alternatively in joining the attack our midfield would return to the vulnerable state which has characterised much of the last two years. For long spells in his United career Rooney has cut a forlorn, frustrated figure. Frequent loss of form has left many (myself included) to doubt whether we will ever see our brightest talent perform to his potential on a consistent basis. The diamond provides the elements that Rooney needs to thrive and might just be the system in which he finally establishes himself as a truly world-class performer.
Tom is a southern dwelling Kendalian who is one of our editors and a weekly guest on the podcast. He has an unhealthy obsession with Jaap Stam and despite 20 years of success never expects United to win.