Wayne Rooney and Manchester United have thrived in recent months since the attacker has played in a free and playmaking role. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
In an article posted just a few hours ago by the Guardian, football writer Jonathan Wilson, who is among of my favorites, argues that Wayne Rooney is a more effective player now than he was during the 2009-10 season. Just in case you might have forgotten, Rooney scored 34 goals during that 2009-10 season for Manchester United and won the PFA and FWA Player of the Year awards. And unless you've recently returned from being stranded on a deserted island in the Pacific with no access to the football world, you're likely aware of Wazza's struggles in the past year; both in his professional and personal life. Perhaps Wilson's argument sounds absurd. Well, I tend to agree with his assertion.
In making a declaration such as this, context can mean a lot. Rooney was undeniably brilliant last season and fully deserving of the accolades that he received. He achieved his goal-scoring success by playing primarily as an out-to-out striker; whether that be as the fulcrum in attack in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid shape or as the lead striker in a 4-4-2. In simple terms, his main task was to score goals. This he did well. In previous seasons at Old Trafford, Rooney moved all about the pitch depending on the tactics of his manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The 2009-10 season was the first where his sole role was essentially as the primary striker; this was deemed necessary after the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez exposed United's versatility. As Wilson states in his piece, United's season fell apart after Rooney became injured; mainly because they were too one-dimensional and too reliant on Rooney in this role.
In recent months, Rooney has begun to thrive again. This time, it's occurring in a role that Wazza himself admits that he enjoys most, that of being withdrawn from the striker and free to create. The arrival of Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez to the club this past summer has resulted in a partnership that is beginning to blossom. The pace and intelligent movement of the little Mexican is stretching defenses both vertically and horizontally, thus, more space is being opened between the midfield and defense lines for Rooney to move into and operate in. This is a dream scenario for a creator with the vision and range of passing of our number ten.
Wilson goes on in his article to praise both Rooney's willingness and ability to defend. It's a trait and skill that has allowed the versatile attacker to effectively play as a wide player on either flank and also in his current withdrawn role. A major reason why that Fergie often uses a '4-3-3/4-5-1' shape is because of his concern of being overrun in the midfield against sides that use modern tactics; this is especially so in European competition. Rooney's consistency in a withdrawn role to track back, get goal-side of the opposition's deepest lying midfielder, and defend is immensely important to his side. His work-rate and brilliant football mind allow Fergie to bravely play in a shape that he has always preferred; 4-4-2 or in the current case, a variant of it (4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1). Essentially, Rooney offers the luxury of a 3rd central midfielder while also helping to provide the benefits of Fergie's favored 4-4-2. It's a role that tactically suits his side better and provides more versatility.
I've recently seen the discussion in the traditional media, the blogosphere, and even here on The Busby Babe about what to do when Paul Scholes decides to hang up the boots. This seems to have intensified recently with many speculating that the midfield maestro will retire at season's end. A common answer I hear and read is Rooney. I both agree and somewhat disagree.
Scholes, in what most would define as his playing prime in years earlier, played higher up the pitch than he does now. In a positional sense, his peak as an attacker likely occurred during the 2002-03 season. It was a season that saw the playmaker contribute a career high 20 goals while often playing in support of prolific striker Ruud van Nistelrooy. In recent times, Scholes has thrived as a deep-lying playmaker; a role that allows him to find more space to create in the deeper space of midfield so that he can dictate play easier. But the majority of his career was spent in a role that is positionally in between these two midfield extremes. Scholes famously partnered Roy Keane in the central midfield during many trophy-laden seasons; the former was the creator and the latter the tackler or destroyer in a 4-4-2.
If football fans have the Scholes/Keane partnership in mind when they consider Rooney as Scholes' long-term successor, then I'm not sure that I entireley agree with that solution. Perhaps as Rooney ages and the consideration to drop him into deeper areas on the pitch comes up, this may be a reasonable solution. In the near future, I don't think this is a suitable role. Rooney isn't nearly as consistent with his touch or as accurate with his distribution as Scholes. But the common passing trait that each have is the vision to provide an incisive pass and the range of passing to unlock a defense. A more suitable role for Rooney currently would be to replicate the 2002-03 version of Scholes. Although still not entirely the same as Scholes' role then, this version of Rooney is where I feel that he is most effective as a player; that of a player who has the freedom to roam, create, and even destroy when defending.
It should be observed that Wilson used the adjective of "effective" and rather than "better," I imagine the word was carefully chosen. The 2009-10 version of Rooney was a spectacular one; his goal-scoring prowess was akin to a powerful sports car that has one obvious benefit of being built for speed. However, the current version of Rooney, the one of the past few months, is akin to luxury sports utility vehicle that is more versatile and one that provides more practical benefits.
What do you see as Rooney's best role going forward?