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Why United’s Wayne Rooney Should Embrace Change or Accept Decline

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Though some pundits criticise him on the grounds of unfulfilled promise, Wayne Rooney has had an exceptional career. He has had an especially exceptional career by the historical standard of English players. With Manchester United he has won five Premier League titles, played in three Champions League finals (winning one of them) and scored 235 goals in 488 appearances. Rooney broke England’s all time goalscoring record back in September and looks odds on to break Peter Shilton’s appearances record which stands at 125 caps. All of this, by the age of 29. There is very little to argue with when one looks at the cold facts of his career. However if, as he has claimed, he plans to stay at the highest level into his mid-thirties then he must follow the path of his old teammates Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs by accepting that his role must change.

Rooney is no longer among football’s attacking elite. Not merely the global elite, led by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, a stratum below which he has lagged for a few years, but the domestic elite too; the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez. If there was a word to describe Wayne Rooney’s performances for club and country over the last eighteen months to two years, it would be functional. He remains a reliable performer, relentlessly professional and when it comes to England, he is still the player you would want a chance to fall to. There isn’t however, the explosiveness possessed by the aforementioned players or indeed the Rooney of yesteryear.

Viewers of the BBC documentary, Rooney: The Man Behind the Goals, must have been struck by the bias towards the first half of his career within the highlight reel. With the exception of the England goals that brought him past Bobby Charlton’s record and his half way line half volley against West Ham in 2014, there wasn’t a great deal from the last few years. We were reminded of the player Rooney was between 18 and 25; a player that took risks, who attacked with fury but also seemed to play professional football because above all, he loved the game. Such are the benefits of youth perhaps.

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Of course, it would be preposterous to expect any player to have the same the same style of play at 29 years old as they did at 18. Cesc Fabregas, who like Rooney was playing top level football as a teenager, has been going through a difficult time also. In the interests of fairness, people need to accept that players who are as prominent as Rooney and Fabregas were at a young age, will probably reach their peak earlier than is typically expected.

It is not just through the human eye that Rooney’s struggles are perceptible, the numbers back up the claim as well. So far this season, 630 minutes of Premier League football have yielded one goal and not a single assist. If you attach the two goals he managed in his final 10 Premier League appearances of last season, it’s quite an unproductive stretch. He hasn’t scored a Premier League goal away from home since November 22nd last year, when he got United’s second at Arsenal. Form may well be temporary, but such figures will worry both Rooney and Manchester United.

Football is nevertheless a team sport, and it can be unjust to criticise individual performances without accounting for the way the team as a whole is functioning. Rooney’s more circumspect and reserved performances in an attacking sense, that have led some observers to suggest he is ‘going through the motions’, is an impression given by many of United’s attackers under Louis Van Gaal.

United’s attacking play is very structured and organised, some would say regimented, with players instructed to hold their positions and in general look to retain possession. The ‘philosophy’ is that enough passes and possession will be accumulated in the final third in order to provoke the opposing defence into losing their shape and thus creating space and an opportunity. This is not natural to Rooney, who generally likes to roam into different areas and do things ‘off the cuff’. Moreover, his role as club captain means that he is more or less obliged to prioritise the collective over his own performance.

Such a situation seems to pose Rooney with a dilemma. He can either accept his status as a diminished forward or he can seek to change his game and try to regain his status in another role. Ryan Giggs realised that he couldn’t be a flying winger for all of his career just as Paul Scholes realised that he couldn’t be a box to box goalscoring midfield player for ever. They metamorphosed into different players, and their club reaped the benefits. So far, Rooney has shown no real appetite to change and has publically stated that he still views himself as a striker and a goalscorer. As the nation’s all-time leading goalscorer, I suppose he is in a strong position to defend this claim.

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For some years however, I have felt that Rooney’s long term position will be in a deeper, central midfield role similar to the ‘quarter back’ job done by Steven Gerrard and Scholes later in their careers. He has the technique, vision and footballing intelligence to play this role without any problem. So far however, he has shown no desire to move back whatsoever and has cut a frustrated figure when asked to do so, be it by Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes on Louis Van Gaal.

One could argue that given Manchester United’s lack of forwards, there is still a need for Rooney at the top end of the pitch to support Anthony Martial. However for England, I think a need and an opportunity exists for him to grow into this role. England have a solid crop of mobile forwards: Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Harry Kane. You could add Jamie Vardy and Danny Ings to this list. However, while it’s great to have such pace at the sharp end of the pitch, you need players behind them with the vision and weight of pass to get them in behind and this is where England are lacking. Michael Carrick is ageing, Jack Wilshere’s injury problems are well documented and Ross Barkley is still developing. There is a creative hole in England’s midfield and Rooney has the skill set to fill it.

The key question is whether or not he has the desire to change and take up such a role. If he doesn’t, then he must accept that his remaining years as a striker will be a period of managed decline.

Featured image: all rights reserved by Duncan Hull.

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