It’s the role Sir Alex Ferguson envisaged for him several seasons ago and the top-heavy nature of Manchester United’s current squad is now squeezing him into it once again – but has Wayne Rooney’s long-awaited move into central midfield come too early in his career?
A supremely natural footballer yet often inconsistent in front of goal, transitioning the England international towards deeper positions is hardly a new theory. It’s been discussed for years, even preceding Ferguson’s selection of him as a centre-mid during the 2012/13 campaign, and blessed with great tenacity, passing range, strength and technical quality, the United skipper possesses the vast majority of the requisites to play there – except, perhaps, the understanding of and discipline for its more defensive obligations.
There are huge similarities between Rooney and United icon Paul Scholes, and despite worldwide acknowledgement of his talents prior, the latter’s move to the engine room eventually came to define his career, resultantly expanding it by a good five or six years – retiring, for the second time, aged 38.
In perfect parody of the ginger maestro, the Red Devils skipper is a goalscorer who can ping the ball around as well, a completion of 84% this term with an average of 58 successful passes per match, while he offers what Scholes always lacked in aggression and physicality. Provided Rooney’s passion for the game remains, playing in central midfield could make him the next worldly star to represent the Old Trafford side well into his late 30s.
Still only 29 years of age however and boding well in terms of output this season, eight goals and four assists in 21 Premier League appearances, in my opinion, Rooney still has a lot to offer as a centre-forward, be it as the proverbial spearhead or the lucid presence just behind.
He’s always played as a striker for England, for example, and although his status as the Three Lions’ last remaining world-class entity often renders him the first target of criticism, 46 in 101 is still a sensational record at international level. Third in the Premier League’s all-time goalscorer charts, 181, and fourth in the all time assist rankings, 93, is nothing to be sniffed at either, and such productive players should always be deployed as close to the opposing goal as possible.
Take Gareth Bale for instance; he could have become one of the world’s best left-backs if Tottenham hadn’t moved him up-field – but what’s the point if he’s capable of scoring in excess of twenty goals per season?
Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao are far more supreme finishers than Rooney and van Gaal’s attempts to play RvP and the England captain as a flat two earlier in the season hardly produced the desired results, scoring just once combined from their first three outings deployed in that manner. Likewise, United have amassed a catalogue of potential No.10s over the last few transfer windows – Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini, Angel Di Maria, Adnan Januzaj, Ander Herrera – in addition to Rooney, so the temptation to play him deeper, leaving space for another top-draw attacking talent in the starting XI, is certainly understandable. Needs must amid a period of holistic change at Old Trafford.
Despite the United star’s impressive performances in the heart of midfield however, it feels more like another case of him falling victim to his own versatility and industriousness, than it does a natural occurrence. At the start of the campaign he felt he had two or three years left as a centre-forward, and in terms of his power and penetrative threat, something United have particularly lacked up front under Louis van Gaal, he offers qualities uniquely vital in Premier League football that Falcao and van Persie can’t.
Clearly, it’s a position that will preserve the England international’s career for potentially another decade – even when his energy exacerbates through age, he will continue to possess the vision, technical quality and passing range to be a very effective playmaker. But let me put it in the simplest terms possible; can you imagine any other club in Europe, at this moment in time, buying Rooney and not playing him as a striker?
To 99.9% of the world he is still a goalscorer. Unfortunately however, van Gaal is the ruling minority.