Wayne Rooney was once considered undroppable because of his reliability in a plethora of roles. There is irony, then, that Sir Alex Ferguson no longer had the trust to find any one role for his former talisman in last week's massive clash with Real Madrid.
It's hard to believe Wayne Rooney, 27-years-old, is already in his 11th Premier League season. The Englishman's rise in football was meteoric and the moment that probably introduced him to the world was his wonderstrike against Arsenal -- as a 16-year-old then for Everton -- that ended their 30-match unbeaten streak. At that moment in time, and then when he signed for Manchester United in the summer of 2004 for a £25.6m transfer fee -- a record for a player under 20-years-old -- the world was Wazza's proverbial oyster. And since that time, he has provided what is seemingly endless material for football journalists. Both the good kind and bad.
Quite predictably, there's been endless columns written about Rooney in the past week because of Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to drop the once undroppable player against Real Madrid. The gaffer has played it cool* by calmly stating that it was for 'tactical' reasons. He even openly pondered why no one questioned his decision not to start Shinji Kagawa against the Spanish side after the Japanese international's hat-trick just days before against Norwich City. As for Rooney, there have been no public complaints nor any obvious visual signs of clear discontent. Despite this though, he (presumably) must have been massively disappointed to not be a starter for such a massive European clash.
* Well mostly cool. He did ban a few publications from his press conference last Friday for insinuating that Rooney might be sold in the upcoming summer.
When Rooney began to make a name for himself at Everton, the staff there loved to discuss how the then youngster was capable of playing in any position -- whether that be as a striker, a central-midfielder, a winger, a right-back, or even as a goalkeeper. That was mostly exaggeration, of course, but the adulation was appreciation of the innate genius and the passion that the Liverpudlian exhibited. This versatility was a harbinger of things to come.
Ferguson's last great team -- in the 2006-09 era -- will probably always be best remembered for the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo. The affectionate adoration the now Real Madrid talisman received last week by the vociferous Old Trafford crowd is a testament to the indelible impression he left. Rooney, though, was enormously important as well to those great sides as he perhaps was the 'Robin' to Ronnie's 'Batman.' The Englishman's greatest contribution in those seasons was his selfless willingness to play in any attacking role that Ferguson asked of him. Not only was he capable of being deployed as a lead striker, a winger, or in support of a lead striker -- or even as a central-midfielder if United were in a bind -- he excelled in each of those roles. The key to the 2008 European Cup winners may have been having three versatile and interchangeable players up front that provided unpredictable anarchy ahead of a structured back seven. Ferguson could also depend on the likes of Rooney, Carlos Tevez, and Park Ji-sung -- when in wide attacking roles -- to be defensibly responsible. There was great balance to those sides.
When Ronnie moved on to Madrid in the summer of 2009, Ferguson made Rooney the focal point of his side -- and the Englishman responded by becoming an unstoppable talisman as a No.9, or perhaps more specifically, what many deemed as a 'false 9'. Prior to Wazza's ankle injury against Bayern Munich in the spring of 2010, during the first-leg of a two-legged Champions League knock-out tie, the discussion was whether he was making a move into the Ronaldo and Lionel Messi pantheon amongst the world's greatest players. United's subsequent struggles for the run-in of the 2009-10 season only highlighted what the team was missing when Rooney was shackled by injury. That Ferguson risked his talisman for the second-leg against Bayern -- despite it eventually being understood that the striker was still badly suffering from the ankle injury -- only highlighted the club's then dependence on their best player.
For nearly a calendar year after the ankle injury against Bayern, things were mostly miserable for Rooney. The Englishman had a horrid World Cup in South Africa, seedy revelations came out about his personal life, a questioning by him of Manchester United's ambitions and his flirtation with Manchester City caused irreparable damage to his relations with some supporters (followed by Ferguson's genius handling of the situation leading to the player staying and signing a lucrative new £250,000/week contract), and his form continued to massively dip for much of the 2010-11 campaign. Then, after enduring another uninspired performance for most of a Manchester derby in February 2011, Rooney scored that goal. Perhaps that was the moment that brought him out of hibernation.
For the run-in of the title #19-winning campaign, Rooney was rejuvenated and reborn as a No.10 -- or as Jonathan Wilson deemed him just prior the 2011 Champions League final against Barcelona, the quintessential English No.10. Wazza's versatility once again was on display as his all-around ability allowed him to become a world-class 'playmaker'. His range of passing and imagination was fully liberated in this role, and while he did display some limitations with his touch and technique, his incredible industry and defensive awareness made him a great protector for Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs -- his more technical partners in the center of the park.
In the final against the Blaugrana, United were dominated and the root of the problem was them being completely overrun in midfield. Rooney's failure to adequately defend against Barca holding-midfielder Sergio Busquets was a major issue but because the Reds had all sorts of problems on the pitch against arguably the greatest side the world has ever seen, there was more admiration for the opponent rather than blame for United. In the summer of 2011, the general belief was that Rooney was back to being the best player in the Premier League -- now as a No.10 -- and it was in other areas of the pitch where United needed to improve if they wanted to challenge the European supremacy of the Catalans.
The 2011-12 season, though, was one of regression rather than of improvement. Instead of being a one-off, Rooney's poor defensive performance against Barcelona slowly became the norm in the following season (and beyond) and increasingly, his decision-making and touch waned as the campaign dragged on. This became an enormous problem for United as the team was arguably as dependent on Rooney last season as they were in 2009-10. This was a fundamental reason why the club won nothing and lost the league title to their 'noisy neighbours'.
In the past summer, United brought in a new No.10 -- Shinji Kagawa -- and the speculation was that Rooney might be pushed higher into a simpler No.9 role. The (former) talisman's overall ability had clearly tapered off but his goalscoring rate was still impressive. However, in August, Robin van Persie -- the Premier League's PFA and FWA player of the year from last season and a genuine world-class No.9 -- arrived and it wasn't clear what Rooney's role would be for the season. It has increasingly become clear that these summer moves were not only made in the obvious hope in improving the squad, but it was also astute protection against an unhealthy reliance on an increasingly mercurial player.
On his day, Rooney still can be a devastating player. Because of this (and perhaps because of his incredible wages as well), it's been assumed by most that Ferguson would still always find a place for the Englishman in United's biggest games. Nearly a month ago in Madrid, the once swashbuckling 27-year-old was deployed in the hugely important tactical role of being on the same side of the pitch as Ronaldo. Rooney showed desire and a willingness in the battle, however, his defensive awareness and focus was nowhere near the levels of his 2006-09 years. It was because of his poor-positioning -- not nearly being compact enough with right-back Rafael -- and him switching off in crucial moments that Real left-back Fabio Coentrao had his side's most dangerous chance prior to Ronaldo's eventual goal. This goal resulted because Rooney failed to close down Angel di Maria before a cross was whipped in for the assist.
It all came to a boil then -- at least from the media's perspective -- last week when Rooney was dropped for the return leg at Old Trafford. There was a slight casualness to Ferguson's mention that the player was dropped for 'tactical' reasons. If anything, though, it should be eye-opening how deliberate that decision was. Ryan Giggs and Danny Welbeck -- as the right-winger and central-attacking-midfielder, respectively -- were deployed in dual-responsible roles while Nani was deemed as the most threatening attacker on the left to go after the player Ferguson clearly targeted as the Real weak-link -- Alvaro Arbeola. These are roles Rooney had always been an automatic selection choice for in the past during testy European ties because of his versatility and awareness. But for the first-time since his ascension as a key United player, he was now on the periphery due to Ferguson's mistrust of his perhaps once most tactically trustworthy player.
As the Guardian's Daniel Taylor penned last week, there's almost a sadness to this all now:
'[Rooney's] exclusion [against Real] would once have brought outcry but now elicits a different kind of scrutiny. It is a form of regret, almost sadness, that for all his achievement he has not turned out to be the player English football had quite expected: the all-action hero who would terrorise players so devastatingly it would be barely conceivable Old Trafford could witness one of its top five European nights in the Ferguson era without him in the team. The player, one might say, Rooney used to be.'
There are reputable writers with proven sources who are adamant that Rooney's departure from Old Trafford is a real possibility in the summer. Then there's Ferguson rebuttal to these reports and his bold assertion that the player will still be with the club next season. Perhaps the best approach, in regards to this all, is simply to take it at face value. It's likely nothing is decided but all parties are almost certainly exploring possibilities.
Rooney's contract expires in the summer of 2015 so within a year or so, he'll probably either sign a new contract for United or he'll be sold sometime in the next three transfer windows. Only a handful of clubs, though -- City, Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, and maybe Juventus -- could seemingly afford his wage expectations and market value transfer fee while also matching his ambition. None of those possible pursuing clubs, with the exception of PSG, appear to be a good fit at the moment.
If Rooney's future lies with United, which according to the bookmakers seems more likely than not, it'll be interesting to see how Ferguson uses him. At the current moment, van Persie is the first-choice No.9, Kagawa (attacking-wise) and Danny Welbeck (defensively) appear to be better No.10 choices, while Wazza has proven to be poor now when deployed out wide. The player that used to fit in nearly everywhere for any match no longer fits in anywhere for the biggest ones. This is an ironic twist to his evolution.
It's fascinating, that by many accounts, Rooney's increasingly mellowing behavior has coincided with him becoming a more erratic player (performance wise) -- and one also with less fantasy about him. The flame of Wazza has dimmed and there's fear that it's prematurely burning out. Perhaps there's an underlying frustration that digs deep at us all -- he never burned quite as bright as anticipated. He's only 27-years-old, though -- there are still embers of hope.