Amid a 3-0 win over Liverpool and a 1-1 draw with Aston Villa, the England international was utilised as a central midfielder by manager Louis van Gaal – but is this the position where his immediate future should lie?
Of course, this is hardly a revolutionary idea, although van Gaal might like to think so; Sir Alex Ferguson attempted to transition Rooney into a centre-mid towards the end of his illustrious reign, later believed to be amongst the issues that convinced the 29 year-old to make an informal transfer request upon the former United manager’s retirement ahead of summer 2013.
The current situation is a little different however; before, Rooney held concerns that Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa were being allowed to overshadow him with little justification. Now Red Devils skipper and the highest-paid player in Premier League history, there’s little need for such insecurities.
Injuries have obviously factored into van Gaal’s recent selections and it’s unlikely Rooney would have featured in midfield against Liverpool and Aston Villa if Angel Di Maria, Marouane Fellaini, Daley Blind and Ander Herrera weren’t on the sidelines.
But whether by coincidence or design, pushing Rooney into a deeper role does solve a few headaches for van Gaal – particularly how best to utilise Juan Mata.
The Spaniard is a fantastic natural footballer – one of the Premier League’s best in purist terms – but lacking the athleticism to impact games from out wide or the defensive awareness to be trusted in deeper roles, both van Gaal and predecessor David Moyes have constantly struggled to find an ultimate position for the midfielder since moving to Old Trafford for a then-club-record £37million last January. He’d never be an immediate pick over United’s captain at No.10, albeit through no immediate fault of his own, but moving Rooney back makes room for Mata in what’s easily his most effective role.
Similarly, central midfield’s been a real problem area for United over the last five years. The standard of Fellaini, Herrera and Blind’s performances in the middle of the park have ranged from disappointing to sublime this season, but none feel like long-term solutions; Fellaini too cumbersome in possession, Herrera rather slight for a Premier League middle man and Blind incredibly defensive by nature. Meanwhile, Michael Carrick, although proving as vital as ever to United’s successes this season, is now 33. Rooney represents a more progressive yet dependable option, but some would argue a project in central midfield, such as the England centurion’s transition, will go on to pose far more question than answers.
That being said, Rooney isn’t the dynamic goalscorer he once was – if his future does lie in a less advanced capacity, the evolution process should start sooner rather than later. The forward’s ‘ever-unappreciated pace’ is a bit of a fallacy in my opinion; he’s no longer the kind of striker that can stretch or threaten space behind defences, which painfully tells when he and the equally undynamic Robin van Persie are deployed in a flat front two.
Now 29 years of age, further decline of Rooney’s youthful athleticism is inevitable, but the central midfield role allows his class to continue shining through. Against Aston Villa for example, he made the most passes, 94, the joint-most accurate crosses, 3, and created the third-most chances, 3, of any player on the pitch. Equally impressively, his pass completion rate was 93.6%.
It’s a similar transition to the like-minded Paul Scholes, who metamorphosed from a shadow striker into a deep-lying playmaker upon reaching his thirties – a role that would later come to define him. Rooney’s cut from a similar cloth as the ginger maestro, both technically gifted footballers with world-class vision, and through his natural brawn and industry is arguably even more suited to the modern demands of central midfield. Andrea Pirlo, the undisputed master of the quarterback pocket in front of the back four, also began his playing days as a centre-forward.
There’s certainly historical precedent, a proven logic if you will, and interestingly, both Scholes and former United striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have recently backed Rooney to make the same transition. With Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck all proving their importance for England in recent times too, one can only ponder whether Roy Hodgson might be beginning to think along the same lines.
I’ve always found Rooney somewhat indefinable as a footballer – not clinical enough to be a world-class No.9, not consistent enough in creation to be a world-class No.10. He’s been tested in every forward role possible throughout his United and England career, but none have successful encapsulated all of his many, many strengths or hidden his weaknesses. This is hardly a new debate.
So although it seems implausible to suggest moving into central midfield could be the making of Wayne Rooney, a five-time Premier League champion, in parallels of the manner it served Scholes until his late thirties, it could go on to immortalise him in a completely different way.
Where the Three Lions captain features predominantly this season will largely depend on injuries, but clearly capable of performing to a high level in that capacity, a transition into the middle of the park should be a factor in both Rooney and van Gaal’s long-term plans.