For ten years, Wayne Rooney has been the constant reliability for Manchester United. As a precocious teen joining up with Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy, through arguably his glory days alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, he has sparkled as Old Trafford’s modern day golden boy.
In recent months, his character is showing a distinct lack of sparkle. Laboured and goal-less, the number 10 has once again found himself at the centre of criticism for his glaringly obvious shortcomings on the pitch. This is nothing new to Rooney, who has developed something of a thick skin against tirades against him, but this time, he can no longer placate and shrug off the obvious.
His time as the goal scorer is well and truly over. Despite a hat trick in European competition, and a well taken goal against boyhood team Everton, Rooney is showing his age. It is not even like one could suggest he has merely hit a temporary barren spell. This could be suggested for a footballer of Christian Benteke’s nature, for whom the goals may surely return imminently. Rooney simply doesn’t look like he will score. Although supported by wingers Anthony Martial and Juan Mata, and attacking midfield Ander Herrera, Rooney continues to drop deep, playing the space vacated for Herrera to run into, rather than Rooney running backwards. Against City – who turned up very defensive minded, the spaces between halfway line and box was squeezed out by the effective lieutenants of Fernando and Fernandinho, rendering Rooney’s ability moot, while also haranguing him into uncharacteristic mistakes. Indeed, Rooney had the fewest touches of any United player that day, and lost the ball more than anyone too. To say he was ineffective when United were very much in a position to go for the jugular shows the extent of his inability to lead the line.
While his eye for goal down the years has often bounced from inconsistent to incredible, his sheer ferocity and energy have been perpetuated throughout his career to bring menace to the forward line, such an attitude that intimidated the defences of Barcelona and Real Madrid, to name but a few. As any player – perhaps Ronaldo aside – hits his 30’s, the velocity and footspeed become hampered by age. Their independence in isolated positions such as striker takes a severe hit, and they can no longer attack defenders with the same vigour and acceleration as a younger player. Rooney is just such a player whose speed is lacking. His runs are now laboured, with less of a focus on beating his man – though he will try – and more of passing around. A key play about the breakdown in United’s attack is their contention with playing the ball sideways looking for the perfect opening, rather than driving forward and forcing the issue. With the exception of Martial, they are seriously lacking speed in the attack.
The headache van Gaal has here is what to do. Rooney is the captain of this team. A player admired by those around him and those in the stands. Online serial-pundit Andy Tate stated van Gaal needed to “wake up and smell the coffee”, which is correct. Although Rooney is cherished by Reds, his performances are leading to many furrowed brows amongst them. Van Gaal siphoned off the majority of United’s strike power this summer with a view to having Rooney lead the line. As it stands, there is no plan B, and no depth.
Come January, United must invest. An heir to Rooney’s place is needed as the captain, who himself must start to prepare for a contribution for less than 90 minutes per week. James Wilson’s chance to flourish has not properly taken off, while Martial seems destined for the starting berth, but cannot be content with being forced onto the wing. Though he is putting in solid shift work when asked to, his natural place is down the centre – a position that would’ve given Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi an almighty headache on Sunday. Moreover, time is not on the side of Ashley Young or Antonio Valencia, and Memphis Depay’s obvious failure to grasp the Premier League style of play puts all the more pressure on Martial to deliver the goods while Rooney continues to flounder.
A player of Alexandre Lacazette’s style would be more than sufficient investment. Fast, strong, and a mean eye for goal, he could be just the tonic for United. He is not the only player they could entice with a move to Manchester, but he springs out as being just what United need.
Where then does that leave Rooney? Xavi’s suggestion that Rooney plays in the hole may very well be one for van Gaal to look into. Although van Gaal has plenty of options at his disposal in the middle of the park, he may deem it an appropriate direction given the scale of Rooney’s influence at United. It is not like Rooney believes himself to be bigger than the club, but van Gaal will wish to keep him on the midfield whilst he still can provide the catalyst for a top United performance, as he has shown he can still do.
Rooneys time as a number 9 is ultimately done, of that it is sure. But leaving m out of the team completely would cause pandemonium for a team that van Gaal is still endeavouring to lead back to greatness.