Just as it seemed the life-support machine was about to be switched off for Manchester United‘s season, their eyes flickered, their finger twitched and their hearts began to beat again.
The comeback victory over Olympiakos in the Champions League has gone some distance to salvaging something from their shambolic season. Not a great distance. Maybe only inches, or centimetres. But a distance nonetheless.
As their European dreams remains alive, their hopes in the Premier League are dead and buried. The United late season charge has yet to materialise and the chances of them making the top four are just as likely as David Moyes building on the dynastic achievements of his predecessor. But if they are to build any kind of momentum heading into their Champions League quarter-finals then league form is going to be crucial. And there may be no better method than redeploying Wayne Rooney.
In a season that has been, in no small measure, a disgraceful disappointment for everyone who cares for United, Wayne Rooney’s form has stayed fairly consistent. After a defence-splitting pass provided Danny Welbeck with United’s third against West Brom two weeks back Rooney became the first Premier League player to record double-figures for both goals and assists for a fifth season. He’s been one of very few positives in a campaign where virtually all records broken have been ones that United wished may stand for a further few years.
Rooney admitted his dissatisfaction back in October at being asked to fill a midfield role last season:
“Everyone at the club knew that [in attack] is where I wanted to play and I think that’s why I was disappointed because I got told to play in midfield and I didn’t want to. But I’d always go in and try to help the team, so I think there had to come a point where for my own career I had to be a bit selfish, really.”
Sir Alex Ferguson left Moyes with a squad that had gaping holes. The reigning champions had been so light on genuine midfield quality two years ago that Paul Scholes was coaxed out of retirement. His addition added a brief rejuvenation, but something was still missing. His eye for a pass and his execution was as good as ever but his physicality, fitness and his nose for goal had waned from previous years.
Rooney has proven himself to be more than just a competent addition to United’s midfield; he’s exceptional at it. He has the ability to spray long balls that Scholes would be proud of and he is the closest United have to a player who can replicate the genius they lost with his ageing and final retirement.
The current crop lack the creativity and the drive to create from deeper positions (Tom Cleverley, Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini). Ryan Giggs’ performance against Olympiakos demonstrated the qualities he still possesses, but at 40-years-old the physical capacity to recreate masterstrokes game after game is absent. These four players currently have a combined league total of two goals and zero assists to their name this season whilst creating just 40 chances. You don’t need telling that those figures simply aren’t good enough but, just so you’re aware, Jordan Henderson has scored three, assisted six and created 53 goalscoring chances. And that’s just one example.
Rooney would provide the physical and technical attributes needed to fill the gap for United while they see the season out whilst also allowing Moyes to get the most out of Juan Mata.
When Mata became available it seemed, to quote Kevin Bacon, a ‘no-brainer’. United were lacking creativity and his signature seemed as though it would go some way to solving this. But he’s currently being crowbarred into the side in order to fit in with Rooney and Robin van Persie. Mata lacks the physical prowess needed to play on the wing and doesn’t have the defensive nous you need from a modern-day winger. He doesn’t track back as tenaciously as you see someone like Antonio Valencia and he isn’t the type to cause too many nightmares for opposition full-backs.
The replacement options may not be up to the standard that Manchester United have had in the past (Adnan Januzaj permitting). Valencia seems to have regressed slightly from a couple of years back. Ashley Young is painfully hit-and-miss and Nani is, well I don’t actually know where Nani is right now. Maybe injured? Maybe watching videos of Cristiano Ronaldo in order to try harder at being a pale imitation of his Portuguese colleague? Anyway, I’ve transgressed. What I’m getting at is that, despite their deficiencies, these players are far more suited to filling a wide role than Juan Mata.
By deploying Wayne Rooney in a deep central position it would not only allow him more time on the ball, something which United will want and opponents won’t, it would also allow for Mata to fill the ‘no. 10’ role he excelled in during his two outstanding seasons at Stamford Bridge. Rooney would add physicality and his tenacity in midfield, whilst being able to distribute in a way that nobody else in United’s team can.
He’d also, most importantly, add a genuine goal threat. With their current quartet United don’t have that. Rooney wouldn’t be marked up in the way he is playing further forwards, allowing him to make late runs in a way that Frank Lampard has mastered throughout his career, and Scholes in his earlier years.
The position may not be ideal for him right now, and I’m not saying it’s a long-term solution, but United need to use what they’ve got at their disposal. And thankfully for David Moyes, he has Wayne Rooney. Ask him to bite the bullet just this once, save the season, and go from there. Any United resurgence needs to have everyone contributing, and Rooney in midfield would be a wise step to take.