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Does Wayne Rooney’s decline prove the excellence of his old Manchester United team-mates?

Arsene Wenger was walking to his car after a match at Highbury one evening when a fan approached him and said: “Arsene, I could play for Arsenal!” The Frenchman coolly replied: “I’m sure you could; the question is how well.” This anecdote springs to mind when contemplating Wayne Rooney’s presence in England’s midfield.

Of course, Rooney has the basic tools and ability to play as a midfielder; the question is whether he is good enough in this role to warrant selection over other players. The Manchester United man has had an exceptional career, and the cold hard facts are impossible to argue with. He established himself as an United and England regular by 18, has won five Premier League titles and a Champions League, is his country’s record goal-scorer, is pushing towards his club’s all-time goal-scoring record as well as Peter Shilton’s total of 125 England caps. He has certainly been underappreciated, but his decline in the last two years may also have been underestimated.

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That the sands of time have eroded his talent is an inevitable consequence of playing more than 800 matches at the top level. He himself has admitted that; at 30 years of age, he no longer possesses the explosiveness and burst of pace to flourish as a striker. Many people (including myself on these pages a year ago), thought he had the vision and technique to become an excellent midfielder. They thought Rooney would follow the path of his former teammates Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes by reinventing himself in a new position. Jamie Carragher expressed the same sentiment only last month:

“Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard found themselves becoming sitting midfielders, having started off their careers rampaging forward; flying wingers Ryan Giggs and John Barnes both reinvented themselves as central midfielders. Were they as good as in their original positions? Of course not.”

As did his colleague at Sky Sports, Gary Neville:

“This is a transition into a new phase of his career, where he’s potentially got to play a different way.

“No player at 22 is the same at 32, 33, 34.

“If you look at Paul Scholes, he went from a marauding midfielder to a holding midfield player, Steven Gerrard the same, Giggs from a flying winger to a central midfield player.”

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However, Rooney might be proving that those players were exceptions rather than the rule. Not many players carve out a second life in another role; most experience a period of managed decline before riding off into the sunset in retirement. Moreover, Scholes didn’t just become any old holding midfielder. He transitioned from the one of the best goalscoring midfielders in Europe, into one of the best deep playing playmakers. He didn’t just move back there for his own sake; he excelled in the role and benefited his team. Furthermore, he moved from one midfield role to another, whereas Rooney is trying to move back having started as a central striker.

As we speak, he is in the process of transitioning from top-class forward to very average midfielder. You cannot criticise Rooney for the fact his legs have slowed down, that is an inevitable consequence of long career. However, it is the decline in his speed of thought that seems most alarming. Many England and United fans have commented that he seems to ‘slow the game’ down in midfield. This is not necessarily a comment on his pace or lack thereof; it’s reflective of a frazzled mind that is taking too long to make decisions. The former Everton man is taking four touches when one or two would suffice.

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Another player to move into a deeper role later in his career was Andrea Pirlo, who started as a number 10 before starring at the base of Juventus’ and Italy’s midfield. Comparing almost any player to Pirlo is a trifle unfair, but he was never a footballer that relied on pace. The difference between the likes of Gerrard, Scholes, Pirlo (even late in their careers) and Rooney is that their passing actually hurt opponents.

The United man still keeps the ball quite ably, but his passing is safe and unthreatening. His trademark pass is the switch of play to his right-back; something that never fails to draw some applause from the crowd but in reality is a very basic skill. Rooney doesn’t find enough of his team-mates ‘between the lines’ and his distribution rarely takes opponents out of the game. He has made just ten key passes in seven Premier League appearances.

Indulging in armchair psychology is always a dubious business, but perhaps it is worth considering the mental effects of more than 12 years’ first-team action. If the midfield experiment is to come close to a successful outcome, Rooney must wholeheartedly commit to change mentally. He doesn’t always give off the vibe that this is the case; it wasn’t long ago that he and Jose Mourinho said he would remain as a number 10 or a striker.

He is incredibly well remunerated for his trouble, but at this stage of his career he might decide that turning out for England only to be booed is more aggravation that it is worth. There is a sense of ennui watching Rooney at present, and he looks unenthused in turn. As the years pass, it will become apparent that the likes of Giggs and Scholes were outliers. Not many players find a second home on the pitch, and Rooney could soon find himself with no fixed abode.

Featured image: All rights reserved by Serg Hoholok

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