Since 2009, no side has claimed the English crown without their leading centre-forward netting in excess of 20 goals, but from his two opening appearances of the season, absolutely nothing suggests Wayne Rooney is capable of meeting that target for what would be only the second time in his career.
Indeed, in 180 minutes of Premier League football, the Manchester United skipper, bumped up to lead the line after four campaigns at the tip of midfield, has managed just two efforts at goal with neither actually hitting the target.
Against Tottenham Hotspur he, at the very least, found himself in decent areas and forced Kyle Walker into an own goal by charging down a loose ball at the far post. But facing Aston Villa on Friday in what was one of the worst individual performances from his decade with the Red Devils, Rooney was lost with his back to goal, unwilling to drive at defenders when facing it and resembled a central midfielder attempting an excruciatingly poor impression of a centre-forward; so overawed by the habitual encirclement of two centre-halves and a holding midfielder (and not particularly talented ones I might add) that he could manage only to offload the ball as soon as he received it.
As you can see from the heat maps below – the left against Spurs and the right against Villa – Rooney’s completed as many touches in his own penalty area as the opposition’s since the season began:
In the interest of balance it’s worth pointing out that in both games, Manchester United haven’t been up to much going forward. Whilst Louis van Gaal’s insistence upon patiently building from the back has resulted in a perfect defensive record of two consecutive clean sheets, it’s also limited the Red Devils’ capacity to run riot in attack in the manner synonymous with the Sir Alex Ferguson days.
Likewise, that 20-goal necessity theory is exactly that – a theory – albeit based on what the last six seasons of Premier League football tell us. With a watertight defence and firepower in most departments, United could supplement a lesser total from Rooney in other areas; Memphis Depay, Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj, Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini and Bastian Schweinsteiger are all goal threats in their own right.
But one only need to take a look at Sergio Aguero’s performance against Chelsea on Sunday to realise how important a talismanic striker like the Argentina international truly is. Whilst it may seem naive to suggest United simply pluck another Aguero out of thin air before September 1st, most starting Xis in the Premier League are spearheaded by a forward with enough power and pace to punch holes in defences and enough quality to create their own scoring opportunities when supply from midfield is limited.
Rooney, now 29 years of age, lacks that physicality, that ability to beat defenders and that clinical streak required to convert the most audacious of half-chances into a superlative strike. Finishing has never been a strength of the England skipper’s and any predatory instincts he previously possessed have been coached out of him during four campaigns in midfield. On a handful of occasions last season, he even lined up deeper in the engine room than Herrera and Fellaini.
Perhaps a victim of his own variety of diverse talents, Ferguson, David Moyes and van Gaal’s attempts to convert Rooney from a striker into a midfielder and now back into a striker have rendered him a considerably less direct, considerably less goal-oriented player than the one who netted 27 times during the 2011/12 campaign. In my opinion, we’re at the point where United can no longer rely on him as their first choice of centre-forward and his flirtatious relationship with midfield should become a permanent one.
Of course, that leaves an integral hole in United’s starting Xi and only two weeks to fill it, but there are still some options left on the market. The Red Devils’ sustained pursuit of Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller may seem improbable but it’s by no means a pipedream for a club of their stature. Likewise, reports claiming Real Madrid will sell Karim Benzema this summer only seem to be escalating, whilst Napoli’s chances of holding onto Gonzalo Higuain after failing to qualify for the Champions League at the end of last season are diminishing by the day.
But if van Gaal fails to find a front man before the end of the transfer window, Man United can’t be considered genuine contenders for the title. Although every position on the pitch is important, it’s strikers that win games in the Premier League.