It’s been a long held belief by Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson that forward Wayne Rooney will eventually start to occupy a deeper midfield role as his career progresses, but is it really that natural a fit for the 27-year-old?
After a slow start to the new season for both club and country, Rooney has slowly but surely started to play himself into form and two goals from eight appearances, six of which came in the league, is a steady if unspectacular record, however it’s when you look at what he’s achieved and how consistent he’s been over the past three or so years that moving backwards starts to make less and less sense.
Last season Rooney was far from his best in terms of the standard of his general play yet he still managed to finish the campaign with 27 league goals and 34 across all competitions to his name. He’s become increasingly ruthless in front of goal and while it’s often said that players rarely learn to be clinical, they either have the skill or they don’t, he does his best to disprove that theory.
When you add in that over the previous three seasons during which he’s started in a more central striking role as opposed to a deeper-lying one, that he’s scored an impressive 84 goals and it appears as if Rooney has developed into a completely different player to the one that first broke through.
Yet during an injury crises last term, Rooney enjoyed a brief spell in the middle of the park and was instrumental during the team’s 2-0 win over Romanian minnows Otelul Galati in November, with Ferguson stating after the game: “He was our best player. He showed great awareness of that role. His selection of passes at times was very good and he showed great energy and determination. We got a really good performance out of him. It was an option for us and a good option because he has all the qualities you need to be a central midfield player. The first thing you have to say about him is that he receives the ball very well. He is aided by the fact he plays in a forward role, when receiving the ball is more of an issue, but that was an advantage for him.”
Nevertheless, Rooney’s performances in a deeper role the past year or so have become increasingly erratic and his distribution woeful at times, particularly when turning out for Roy Hodgson’s England side. He’s long been billed as a creator for others in a similar way to past international greats such as Paul Gascoigne and Peter Beardsley but he’s struggled for consistency the past few years in that number ten role in the hole.
This season from his five league appearances, Rooney has a pass completion record of 82%, which is solid but nothing special. Of course, playing up front means that the role itself carries more risks and he’s never going to touch on what the likes of Paul Scholes or Joe Allen manage to record, but his distribution is still patchy considering how much of the ball he receives and perhaps he’s hampered by our expectations of the player hs should be rather than accepting the player he’s actually turned out as.
The signings of Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa in the summer have cast doubts on where exactly Rooney will feature in this new-look forward line, but Ferguson has shown versatility in recent weeks in picking and choosing his teams to suit the opposition, going with three up front one week and then playing with a four-man diamond midfield the next.
Rooney will always have a role in this United side and his relationship with van Persie, while in its relative infancy, already looks like it could be everything the club’s fans hoped it could be when they first clinched the acquisition of the Dutchman in the summer and they’ve both set up fantastic goals in recent weeks for one another.
The side is hardly blessed with superb central midfield options and Scholes is coming to the end of his career, while Tom Cleverley lacks a recognised role in the side at the moment. The jury is still well and truly out on Anderson in terms of both form and fitness and a partner will eventually need to be found for Michael Carrick who is growing increasingly influential, with Darren Fletcher still being eased back into the side.
A replacement for Roy Keane and Owen Hargreaves has long been required at Old Trafford and while Rooney’s tenacity lends itself to a more combative area of the pitch well, plus his versatility, he can still at times seem positionally naive and let his emotions get the better of him, which is a bit of a danger in that role.
Moving into midfield has been the presumed positional future of Rooney for some time and judging by the player that he was five years ago, it certainly made a lot of sense, but the version we see most weeks today simply isn’t careful or creative enough in possession to warrant a spot there and it would represent a great risk just at a time when he’s starting to flourish further forward once again.
Do you think Rooney has what it takes to play in midfield? Or is it folly to move such a consistent stream of goals away from an area where he can do the most damage?
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