When Wayne Rooney burst on to the scene as a 16 year old in 2002, he became a record breaking, goalscoring prodigy, the likes of which many in English football had never seen. At the time of his first-team debut, he was the youngest player in Everton’s history to make an appearance for their senior side. Goals seemed to come easy to the youngster, with him scoring more than one memorable effort in his first full season in top flight football. After scoring an unforgettable last-minute winner against Arsenal in the same season, Arsene Wenger said of Rooney, “Rooney is the biggest England talent I’ve seen since I arrived in England. There has certainly not been a player under 20 as good as him since I became a manager here,”. For a man of such high standing to lavish such praise on a player is worth noting, particularly when you consider the young talent Wenger, himself, had nurtured at the time – he was responsible for the breakthrough of the likes of Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet in an exciting the exciting young AS Monaco side of the mid 1990s.
Chart Rooney’s club career scoring records from then, however, and a worrying pattern appears to have emerged. His scoring prowess peaked in the 2009/10 season, when he scored 34 goals in all appearances for Manchester United, a feat he managed again in 2011/12. Look at the rest of his seasons in top flight club football, however, and his scoring record is somewhat less remarkable. Despite being considered a world-class striker in some quarters, Rooney has only scored 20 or more club goals in 4 of his 13 seasons so far. Hardly the type of scoring record worth comparing to other great strikers of the last 20 years. His scoring record for England has, of course, been much better. With 47 goals in 103 appearances for the national side, Rooney has been nothing but prolific. These stats flatter to deceive however, with the majority of these goals coming in qualifying games rather than on the big stage at major finals.
We all know Rooney has the natural ability to be one of the best strikers in the world. Why, then, should a man who undoubtedly possesses natural talent as a finisher be unable to reflect this in his scoring statistics? You only need to look at his most recent appearance for Manchester United to find your answer.
Having lost 1-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge this Saturday, Man Utd had the lion’s share of the possession for the majority of the first 60 minutes. The football they played was exciting and dynamic – they always looked a threat in front of goal. With a degree of inevitability that runs through most of Jose Mourinho’s matches, however, Eden Hazard was able to snatch a well-taken goal in the 38th minute for the champions-elect to secure a win that leaves Chelsea needing only 6 points to wrap up the title.
Despite the dominance of Man Utd throughout a lot of the match, there was one aspect of their play that many United fans will have found more than frustrating – and it comes back to our man Rooney. As previously said, Man Utd played some great possession football – they sprayed passes left, right and centre, desperately looking for the key to unlock a resilient Chelsea defence. But who was at the centre of most of this play? Rooney. Commendable, you might say. But all too often, Rooney could be found dropping as far back as his own half to retrieve the ball and send Hollywood passes out to the wide areas. This is a trait of Rooney’s which is widely praised in the British game. His aptitude for ‘tracking back’, ‘making a strong challenge’ and generally being seen to work hard are all aspects of his game that those supposedly ‘in the know’ love about Rooney.
But here’s where I begin to disagree with that widely-held notion. There is, of course, a lot to be said for a player being willing to work hard for the team. Most successful teams are not able to carry what might be considered a luxury player, one who is not willing to stick the boot in when required. But, for me, when Rooney is found doing that, it’s at the expense of doing what he’s best at – being in dangerous areas in the final third of the pitch where he can be lethal. He’s an average midfielder at best but up front, he can be world class.
So often throughout the Chelsea match, Man Utd would get so far and have no further options. Falcao has come in for much criticism over the season, but he could often be found in dangerous positions at Stamford Bridge and, with a little better service, could have been on the scoring charts himself. Rooney never really posed that threat because, every time the ball would be in an area where it could cause problems for the Chelsea defence, Rooney seemed 20 yards behind the play. Mourinho had cleverly nullified the recently-effective threat of Marouanne Fellaini by having him closely marked by Wilfred Zouma, so United were always having to search for other options – options Rooney didn’t give them.
There is an argument, however, that Rooney has been encouraged to take up the role he now seems only too willing to, dropping deeper into midfield. He has been used in central midfield as far back as 2011, when Sir Alex Ferguson selected him to play there in a Champions League group match against Otelul Galati. This was as a result of injuries to many of United’s fist team choices of the time and Rooney was widely praised for his performance, including from Ferguson himself. For me, however, a good performance from a player with the natural talent of Rooney against a side of such questionable quality is possibly not worth the praise it received – he could have played anywhere that night and would have been able to put in a more-than-competent performance.
So the question remains – is it Rooney ignoring instruction and dropping deep of his own accord? Or is this a role he has been encouraged to take up by the managers he has been under? Either way, I don’t think it matters. The fact remains that where you could find countless better options in midfield than Rooney, you would probably struggle to find many better striking options in Europe. If he played up front consistently, surely his scoring records would reflect that. And so, I would steal the advice my brother had for Van Gaal after watching the Chelsea match and say only this – play Rooney up front or not at all.