Earlier this season, the footballing world paid due notice to the tenth anniversary of Wayne Rooney’s wonder-goal against Arsenal that ended The Invincibles’ undefeated Premier League record, and also propelled the Merseyside youngster to instant fame.
Since then, Rooney’s career has only moved forward, and his £25million move to Manchester United back in 2004 signified that the former Everton man would be a future star for club and country. But, I would argue, at least over recent seasons, it’s not perhaps in the style and manner many predicted when seeing his unforgettable strike for the Gunners for the first time in 2002. There’s been a growing debate over how the striker should be utilised, and pundits, fans and even Sir Alex Ferguson have criticised a lack of goals in sporadic periods over his career.
But are these criticisms justified? The England man has 139 league goals in 269 appearances for Manchester United including 27 last season alone – a record which should not be readily dismissed. However, there is some understandable concern. For all of his abilities, you get the feeling Rooney could still be scoring more, and on a more regular basis. Furthermore, his form for England has often left a lot to be desired.
The international game can be somewhat harder – you’re less familiar with your own team-mates, you may be playing in conditions away from home or in tournaments that you’re not well acclimatised to, and you have the weight of the expectations of a whole nation on your shoulders. But from a player who is considered one of the best attackers in the Premier League, who is arguably the star of the Three Lions Starting XI and who often shows off his brilliance for his club, is 33 goals in 79 appearances, not to mention some lacklustre performances at the same time, what you’d expect from the likes of Wayne Rooney?
So far in this article, I’ve avoided using a particular pseudonym. That pseudonym is “striker”, and additionally even the terms “forward” or “attacking midfielder” could be equally as inappropriate, which in many ways is the exact point I wish to make. Just last week, it was reported that Wayne Rooney had handed over penalty duty to team-mate Robin van Persie. Although some fans criticised the decision, stating that the England man had thrown away his chances of winning this year’s Premier League golden boot, and others believed it showed his professionalism and selflessness, I have a slightly different hypothesis.
The reason Rooney handed over his penalty-taking role so readily and quickly is because scoring goals is not his main concern. This is not a phenomenon which I believe applies to this season directly now that van Persie has taken over as the man at the spearhead of the United attack, but over his whole career. I’ve watched him for many years now, I’ve seen him in interviews and even read short extracts from his rather dodgy autobiography, and he does not come across as a natural born striker, a footballer who lives for the rush of glory when the ball sends ripples through the back of the net, but simply a footballer who loves to play football.
It’s the same reason that Sir Alex Ferguson willingly set up against Real Madrid in the Champions League last week with arguably his biggest attacking threat playing out wide and spending most of the game keeping tabs on Cristiano Ronaldo rather than looking to get forward and penetrate the La Liga side’s defence.
Similarly, throughout Rooney’s career, he’s been placed deeper and deeper into the Manchester United midfield, and without the ball he often operates as a screener for the two deeper-lying central-midfielders. There’s even been a suggestion that he should be trusted to start a game in the middle of the park, a position in which Sir Alex Ferguson has deployed him from the bench on occasion over the past few years.
Some fans may view it as a waste – removing a man who has such ability in front of goal in terms of technique, movement and creativity from the area of the pitch that is easiest to score in does seem a rather odd move. But in my opinion, Rooney would be a dominant force in any position that he’s utilised in. It’s not his strength or his ability, but simply his attitude, his love for football, that makes me believe he can play anywhere on the pitch. It’s not unusual to find him covering for a full-back or even clearing off the line, which although may not be necessarily what you want from a striker, but as a single player in a team of eleven, it’s a fantastic characteristic for those playing alongside him.
And in many ways, it’s also an explanation for why Rooney is judged to be underperforming for the Three Lions. The fact of the matter is that he’s been playing out of position for arguably his whole international career. But playing him in his more favourable position at the tip of the midfield would only add further complications to the Gerrard/Lampard paradox which is why it’s never been considered an option by Roy Hodgson and his predecessors.
I feel the debate over Wayne Rooney will always live on. This season, he’s netted ten times in eighteen appearances. But whenever his goal-scoring form dries up, the questions yet again emerge why he’s not challenging for the golden boot year after year. Well, my answer is simple. He’s not a goal-scorer, he’s a footballer.
He’s the kid on the playground who runs rings around his school-mates and can’t be tackled, he’s the boy in the street who spends hours trying to hit the light on the lamp-post, and he’s the young lad in the park who makes last-ditch challenges – grazing his knees and muddying his trousers in the process.
Some will always remain unconvinced. Arsene Wenger recently commented that he personally would prefer to use Rooney as a striker. So I will leave you with a simple comparison. Whom does Wayne Rooney most remind you of? Paul Gascoigne or Alan Shearer? Zinadine Zidane or Michael Owen? Ronaldinho or Ronaldo? He’s a footballer, not a striker, or a midfielder, or a defender. He’s just a footballer, in the purest sense of the word.