From Barcelona legend Xavi to former team-mate Paul Scholes, everybody’s voiced their argument in this season’s never-ending Wayne Rooney debate.
At the start of the campaign, criticism focused on the Manchester United skipper himself, seemingly stuck in one of those ruts that have peppered his successful career – those ten-to-fifteen game bursts where all footballing ability appears drained from his body by one of the pint-sized aliens from Space Jam. Unable to control a pigskin, let alone put it into the back of the onion bag, Wazza Roo didn’t score in the Premier League until game-week six during a routine 3-0 win against rock bottom Sunderland.
But amid United’s goalless 325 minutes across all competitions – the first time they’ve suffered three consecutive scoreless draws since 2005, when Liam Miller and John Spector were called to action against Exeter City in the Capital One Cup – Rooney revisionists have shifted the debate towards Louis van Gaal’s tactics over the last week.
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Former Red Devils coach Rene Meulensteen has lamented the lack of risk-taking when compared to Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides, Scholesy’s questioned whether any centre-forward would prove potent in such a restricted system and ex-United winger Andrei Kanchelskis has labelled LVG’s tactics as quite simply ‘disgusting’ – a particularly harsh condemnation.
It is certainly true that the ‘philosophy’ van Gaal relentlessly talked up upon being appointed Old Trafford boss last summer has largely underwhelmed. We usually associate philosophy with overtly attacking sides like Arsenal and Barcelona, but the LVG vision is more like the lovechild of Tony Pulis and Brendan Rodgers; impeccable defensive organisation and dominance of possession, yet seemingly at the expense of dynamism, penetration and flair in the final third.
No doubt, the striker slot is the toughest gig in the United starting line-up at the moment. Rather incredibly, the Red Devils have created the fewest chances of any team in the Premier League this season, 81, and resultantly scored the third-fewest goals of any side in the top half, 15. So it’s safe to say Rooney’s suffered from a lack of service this term – it’s not as if he’s been missing three or four good chances every match – and struggling strikers are often symptomatic of a dysfunctional system.
Yet Rooney is unquestionably a declining entity, especially as a centre-forward. He’s no longer the rampaging baby elephant of his early twenties, the pacey, stocky goal scorer who netted 27 times during the 2011/12 campaign or even the support striker who supplied Robin van Persie so proficiently the season after.
His physicality has waned with age and perhaps due to the responsibility of captaining both United and the England national team, the 30 year-old has lost the tenacious aggression which once defined him. No doubt, a top class technician with top class vision is still in there somewhere, but Rooney and van Gaal are finding it increasingly harder to bring him to the surface.
Although LVG’s tactics aren’t particularly accommodating, Rooney’s biggest struggle this season has been simply holding off two centre-backs long enough to move the ball – which should be bread and butter for most Premier League strikers. Likewise, he’s only made one or two touches in the penalty area per match this season and in some instances, such as Crystal Palace on Saturday, none at all, highlighting how the forward’s failed to get himself in advantageous positions – perhaps due to insufficient speed and strength when attempting to evade markers.
So although van Gaal’s tactics are an indisputable influence on Rooney’s recent form, that doesn’t necessarily mean any striker would equally struggle in United’s current system. When Anthony Martial played up top his goals were inspired by moments of individual brilliance and that is what Rooney has failed to provide this season – a spark of ingenuity to create something out of nothing. As Alan Pardew insinuated after the scoreless draw at Selhurst Park, stopping Martial is now more important than stopping Rooney when attempting to stifle United’s attacking play.
In a sense, it’s like the grand old debate of the chicken or the egg – both factors are intertwined to the extent causal analysis is almost meaningless. But the difference is that van Gaal has the luxury of buying a better, younger, more fertile hen if it’s not making enough produce and tight now, Wayne Rooney’s eggs are all coming out rotten.
LVG’s philosophy may be dull but it’s clearly effective; United are only four points behind pace setters Manchester City despite going two league games without a goal; and could be even more effective with a dependable goal-scorer leading the attack.
— FootballFanCast.com (@FootballFanCast) November 2, 2015