Wayne Rooney’s Skyfall Moment
In the latest installment of the James Bond franchise, Skyfall, our tuxedoed secret agent finds himself confronted with some difficult truths. Early in the film his inability to subjugate an adversary forces his superior to make a decision which, when carried out, places our hero’s career in limbo. Upon his return to MI6 he is submitted to a stringent physical and psychological evaluation in order to assess his ability and readiness to return to the “field”.
Manchester United’s very own James Bond, that British bulldog of an athlete, previously invulnerable and always beloved by the support, now faces his own difficult truths. Wayne Rooney missed out on a starting role in last week’s Champions League match against Real Madrid. For many, this was a clear sign that Rooney was no longer considered untouchable by Sir Alex Ferguson. Not helping his situation has been the excellent form on Robin Van Persie and the rise of Danny Welbeck, both of whom started the first and second legs against the Iberians.
Questions reverberated over the Englishman’s weight and fitness; his showings as of late have done nothing to quell the doubts. His touch has looked off, as have his passing and general precision. His movement, once described as the cross between a cobra and a bison, now appears laboured, predictable. He returned this season from a summer in which England foundered at the European Championships, a tournament he prepared for with a holiday spent in Vegas casinos. Now 27, we should be enjoying a Wayne Rooney at the height of his considerable powers, not questioning his loyalty to the game. A strong case can be made that he has unfortunately failed to fulfill his potential.
This is Wayne Rooney’s Skyfall moment. He must answer the critics, quiet the doubters, and stake his claim as the premier player on the league’s best team.
As complex as the problem may seem, and may be, the answer to the question of the player’s perceived downfall is a simple one. Within Sir Alex’s ever-present, sometimes-modified 4-4-2 certain players are inextricably linked to their positions. Robin Van Persie will always play as a striker, as will Javier Hernandez. Michael Carrick will always be charged with finding and setting the tempo from the center of the park, and Antonio Valencia will always hug the touchline. Quite curiously (or not) with Rooney, this rarely happens; to wit: in the first leg against Real Madrid, Rooney was deployed out on the right of midfield, clearly planted there to nullify the threat of one Cristiano Ronaldo. His performance was criticized, and his demotion to the bench for the second leg justified the critics.
An excellent piece here on Cantheyscore argues that Nani’s troubles on the field arise from the use of unclear strategy or tactics on the part of Sir Alex Ferguson. The point is clear: Nani requires a set number of players behind him, players who offer the structure required to offset the inherent unpredictability with which he plays.
Rooney’s dilemma, comprised of similar underlying factors, lies in the way in which his abilities are utilized. A forward like him- strong, determined, driven, angry, blessed with excellent technical ability- should never be positioned behind the attacking third. His skill-set has but one purpose, this to wreak havoc amongst opposition defenders.
The counterpoint to this argument might be that the team is more important than the individual, and that if his services are required somewhere other than leading the forward line, so be it. Conversely, a look at his best year shows us that when given the responsibility of scoring goals, few are better than Rooney.
Following Ronaldo’s departure, the offensive burden at Manchester United was placed squarely on his broad shoulders. He responded with aplomb, scoring goals as if they were going out of fashion, netting the PFA Player’s, PFA Fan’s, and FWA Footballer of the Year awards. Of all the accolades, perhaps the most salient for my purposes was his inclusion in the debate for deciding the finest footballer in the world. His name was mentioned in the same breath as Messi’s and Ronaldo’s. This came not as a surprise, but as the fulfilment of an athlete’s immense promise, and the hope was that his star would only continue to rise.
This has certainly not been the case. Rooney’s ability has grown with age, and his passing recently had us all raving about the “new Paul Scholes”, but even the Ginger Prince did not retreat from his central attacking midfield role until he was past thirty. It must be the same with Rooney. In order to thrive as he once did, he needs to play a central role as one of the main attacking options at Manchester United.
The recruitment of Van Persie and Shinji Kagawa should have been a means to an end, namely that Rooney would finally have the support he required as a forward. While all three players inhabit similar positions on a football pitch, any adjustment made for the inclusion of Van Persie and Kagawa in the squad should have centred around Rooney. This did not happen. Instead, his status within the club has diminished, and his attacking abilities seem all but forgotten.