Manchester United’s laboured Champions League win over Otelul Galati won’t live long in the memory for many but one recurring theme which may come out of the evening was the sight of Wayne Rooney bounding round an orthodox central midfield position.
It was Rooney’s second start in the middle of the park in successive games after being thrust into the thick of it upon his return to the combustible Goodison Park last Saturday, and although Sir Alex Ferguson has suggested the move has been largely enforced by the absence of others, Rooney’s accomplishment in the role could pave the way for a new day job.
After only a couple of games it seems premature to be retreating one of the world’s finest strikers back from his natural habitat, but the fledgling showings do raise the possibility that less is more for Ferguson’s side, and that indeed letting Rooney run things from deep could be the blueprint of yet another Red revolution.
Against Galati, Rooney demonstrated what Rooney does. Dovetailing with Anderson as part of a central two, the 26-year-old naturally offered the sort of natural vitality that could only be tapered if you stuck him in net, but he combined this with the ball playing maturity of an ageing anchor man on his last legs.
The quality of opposition left a lot to be desired and even his own team-mates added gloss to a cultured performance of intuitive prompting and probing using his innate footballing brain. Throughout an otherwise stale United offering, Rooney was a hive of activity dropping deep to find the ball off his defenders before linking play across the breadth and width of the pitch.
His touch was assured as ever, allowing him to receive under duress which thus afforded Rooney the time and space to orchestrate much of United’s play. Aside from knitting things together neatly, Rooney’s range of passing is arguably more complete than any of United’s current midfield stock. and he also has the priceless gift of being able to unlock defences with the type of delivery that few can spot, let alone execute.
His all-round attacking repertoire means there is little doubt that offensively Rooney could give his side a different dimension by withdrawing from a central attacking berth, and even by limiting his goal-scoring effectiveness, the team could benefit from their star-man assuming a midfield slot.
The conundrum Ferguson must get right though is in what capacity to go with. Since arriving at Old Trafford Rooney has automatically been let loose up-front, either as the furthest forward of the forwards or just off to equal effect. However, in the Reds current 4-4-2 set-up, a place in the middle of the middle may be taking things to the extreme.
For a start, the discipline of playing in such a crucial area of the pitch requires an understanding of what to do and when, and it remains to be seen whether Rooney has the mentality and temperament to play in such a position. His tackling cannot be any worse than Paul Scholes but that doesn’t mean its good either.
Also, central midfielders need to know when to press and when to stand and against better units who command possession, his exuberance and endeavours to regain the ball could have him resembling a dog chasing a tennis ball and inadvertently expose a creaking back four.
The ideal scenario would be to allow Rooney the freedom to influence from an unconstrained positionless position where his connivance would be most difficult to nullify. By allowing Rooney to assume this responsibility, Ferguson is getting the best of both worlds. His most effective and creative quasi midfield-forward can play where he wants and do what he wants without lessening any of his potency whilst also giving him more scope to dictate from deeper.
The pre-season gossip columns were loaded with United’s pursuit of a magic-man to impact games and in Rooney, Ferguson already has his fantasical Wesley Sneijder type player albeit with more hair and £40m still intact. By using resource already at their disposal, that money would be more wisely spent on the polar-Rooney enforcer which would give the side the drive and bite currently lacking.
United’s two closest competitors – Barcelona and Manchester City – have Lionel Messi and David Silva roving where necessary to benefit individually and collectively and Sir Alex Ferguson has the player to replicate what those two do for their clubs.
Call it forward or call it midfield, the tag is a technicality. Rooney has the intelligence and application to pull it off and the sooner he’s employed as such, the sooner United will see the dividends.
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