Paul Scholes’ recent claim that Wayne Rooney has “all the ability to take over my old position at Manchester United” has reopened the door for a long-thought-buried conversation. Those supporting Scholes do so reasoning that Rooney can hit sweeping passes, just like the retired United midfielder, and that the 28-year-old’s well-roundedness will shine in deeper areas. The opposition has claimed that Rooney simply does not have the technique required to star in a modern midfield.
Data Rant compares Rooney to top Premier League strikers and midfielders to see where the England international might feel more at home. As usual, normal assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict. Players have been judged on following:
- Consistency in goal scoring
- Ability to get into the box
- Dribbling past markers
- Aerial presence
The number of assists made by most creative teammate has been included to reflect the strength of a player’s side. The figure has been adjusted so that players playing for relatively weaker sides can be compared fairly to players at leading clubs, such as Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero.
The top 10 forwards in the league have been considered. That is: Aguero, Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Olivier Giroud, Edin Dzeko, Wilfried Bony, Jay Rodriguez, Romelu Lukaku, Loic Remy, Rickie Lambert and, of course, Rooney.
In Figure 1, below, it is awkward to summarise from the trend line, but a pattern can be quickly recognised – data points are diverging with Suarez the outlier. The vertical axis marks the number of goals scored, with more rounded players towards the right of the graph (the horizontal axis measuring a sum of attacking attributes: shots, take ons, successful headers, pass accuracy, chances created, assists.
The Uruguayan striker scored 31 goals and assisted 12 times last season and his position in the graph reflects his excellent all-round campaign.
In Figure 2, below, Rooney is added to the mix. The new trend line is not a perfect fit, but Rooney is very close to it. The model suggests that Rooney should have scored 19 Premier League goals – the United forward scored 17. Notice that Rooney, along with a few others, lies away from the cluster of players to his left. We’ll get this this momentarily.
In Figure 3, four players stand out from the model; Sturridge, Aguero, Remy and Rooney. If it wasn’t for these four, the trend line would perfectly connect the group.
Given his all round performance, Sturridge significantly outperformed the model’s expectation in his scoring feats. Rooney, Remy and Aguero all scored a decent amount of goals in the 2013/14 season, but their creative abilities push them towards the right of the chart. The data therefore confirms Rooney’s completeness as a player.
We now compare the 11 forwards to attacking midfielders: Yaya Toure, Steven Gerrard, Aaron Ramsey, Raheem Sterling and Oscar. They are top five central players by goals scored and have been judged on the same criteria as the strikers.
As in the first graph the model doesn’t produce an easy trend line. There are two ways of interpreting data here.
Two almost parallel lines have been drawn, below, to reference two groups in our model. The blue line passes through our group of midfield players and Aguero, who is comfortable playing deeper. The black line hits many of forwards and Toure. Toure scored 20 Premier League goals and it would shock few if the Ivorian is categorized a ‘striker’ in this model. The ‘parallel lines’ model implies that attacking midfielders are simply strikers with more tools to utilise. However, Rooney lies awkwardly in the middle – close to both lines but not quite enough to belonging to either group.
Suarez, below, is plotted far away from the rest, but the Liverpool striker had such an excellent season that it would have been more surprising had there been a player close to him.
The black line connects strikers and Toure closely, while the blue line does a very good job of attaching attacking midfielders. The ‘scissors model’ suggests that attacking midfielders can just as well labeled as a forward – not that far-fetched considering that Scholes himself had been a deep lying forward before moving deeper as he matured. It is hard to argue that Rooney will make such transition, though – even in this model Rooney sits in the middle of two clusters.
It is perhaps too early to predict Rooney’s positional future as Louis van Gaal might dictate that Rooney’s future lies elsewhere in the country or even the continent. People for and against deploying Rooney as central midfielder all make very good points. Unfortunately, data supports both and neither at the same time.
Addendum – Robin van Persie
David de Gea is the only player who has ended United’s 2013/14 campaign with his reputation intact. The performance of Robin van Persie was particularly disappointing, whose output in front of goal went from 26 to 12 in the league. The Dutch striker suffered significant injury problems under Moyes, but his relationship with van Gaal should cure most of these ailments. Will the new United manager get van Persie firing on the pitch as well?
Compared to 12/13, van Persie created less chances and dribbled more last season, suggesting that the Dutchman was rather isolated. The fact that the former Arsenal captain did less defensively in his second season with United solidifies this argument.
The graphics, below, detail the areas in which van Persie made key passes over the past two season. The 12/13 map can easily be confused to that of a playmaker, while the more recent view shows someone who has been crowded out of attacking midfield zones. Indeed, during the season, van Persie complained of a player who “sometimes [occupied] the spaces I want to play in.”
United’s lack of form could have adversely influenced van Persie, but it is Rooney who likely occupied van Persie’s spaces. Rooney attempted almost twice as many take ons as the season before. By having the ball longer, the English striker would have forced van Persie to stay further forward.
We revisit the recent Data Rant model above. Rooney of 12/13 and 13/14 and van Persie or 12/13 and 13/14 are considered in addition to top ten Premier League strikers and top five central midfielders.
van Persie has gone from being a complete forward to a solid striker. Rooney, in fact, has regressed slightly in his all-round performance, although his scoring record has improved – Rooney’s best role remains unclear. In Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season, Rooney clearly played as a conventional attacking midfielder and van Persie had an excellent season. Maybe having Rooney in the engine room could work.