For a manager famous for being ruthless with underperforming star players, Louis van Gaal has been extraordinarily patient with Wayne Rooney. Sunday's draw against Manchester City wasn’t the type of open, attack-minded game that favours attackers, but it was nevertheless yet another match Rooney strolled through without exerting any influence whatsoever.
Rooney has played two separate roles this season, both as a No.10 behind a main central striker, and as the main striker himself. There’s been a debate over the last half-decade about precisely what position he favours, and he might end his career without having truly discovered the answer.
Instinctively, you feel the No.10 role suits him best, because this is a creative player who likes finding space between the lines and providing good passes into attack, and someone capable of running the game on his day. However, arguably his best United season came in 2009/10, when he essentially played as a goal-poacher and scored an amazing number with his head.
So far this season, the evidence suggests he’s currently capable of playing neither role to the standard you expect of a Manchester United player. As a No.10 he simply seems lost, with his recent display in the 3-0 defeat at Arsenal particularly alarming. Perhaps still affected by the criticism for being unable to track a dangerous midfield opponent, Rooney now seems too concerned with his defensive responsibilities without the ball, often handed a man-marking brief by Van Gaal in that role.
However, he doesn’t have the burst of pace to escape his marker at transitions. Worryingly, the creative edge to his game seems to have been lost - he’s managed just three Premier League assists in the last 12 months.
A No.9 role doesn’t suit him any better. Rooney no longer has a burst of pace to escape opposition attention and buy himself an extra half-second, and it’s worth remembering that while never the most naturally athletic footballer, Rooney was extremely quick at his peak. Adjusting to a loss of speed is something even the best footballers struggle with, and perhaps Rooney hasn’t learned how to adapt his game. Against City, Rooney’s distribution was fine in midfield positions, but he was almost incapable of completing a pass in the final third, conceding possession with wild balls in the vague direction of team-mates.
He hasn’t struck up a good relationship with either Ander Herrera or Anthony Martial, who both provide the direct running Rooney should appreciate, while he’s not the type of player Juan Mata wants to play behind – you suspect Martial and Mata in central positions together could be much more dangerous.
Rooney’s scoring return is also a concern: it’s two league strikes this season, and just six in 27 throughout 2015 as a whole. Yesterday, he didn’t receive good service from United’s midfield, but then he wasn’t making the runs to receive good service, and he wasn’t creating chances himself.
His sole effort was a long-distance shot in the aftermath of a corner, which was telegraphed so obviously because Rooney took so long to get himself in the correct position to shoot.
Everything seems slower, more predictable. Meanwhile, when he collected the ball out wide and crossed, no one was taking up his centre-forward position in the box.
None of this, of course, means that Rooney is ‘finished’ as a top-level footballer. You’d have to be either extremely brave, or extremely stupid, to make that assumption considering he’s surely the ‘streakiest’ player in recent Premier League history.
He’s always been liable to have tremendous spells of goalscoring form, before going several games without a goal – although it’s always roughly evened out by the end of the campaign. Rooney has hit double figures in the Premier League for 11 consecutive seasons, an unparalleled achievement.
Still, he’s never endured a run as disappointing as this. Rooney seems guaranteed a start at Manchester United. He’s only missed one league game this season – through injury – and hasn’t been substituted once, despite regularly being both United's weakest attacker, and the oldest player (who therefore needs to be managed through the season in physical terms). He’s reached undroppable status, at maybe the lowest point in his career.
Rooney has started 2015/16 by breaking England’s all-time goalscoring record, and joining Andy Cole to become the Premier League’s second-highest top goalscorer behind Alan Shearer. It seems a typically negative, English approach to shoot down an English footballer currently making history – but realistically, Rooney is currently performing extraordinary badly.
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