Data Rant: Rooney in midfield

June 3, 2014 Tags: , Data 18 comments
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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:

  1. Consistency in goal scoring
  2. Ability to get into the box
  3. Dribbling past markers
  4. Aerial presence
  5. Passing
  6. Incisiveness

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.

Figure-1 Top Premier League Strikers

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.

Figure-2 Top Premier League Strikers

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.

Figure-3 The Four

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.

Figure-4 Forwards + Attacking Midfielders

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.

Figure-5 Forwards + Attacking Midfielders

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.

Figure-6 Forwards + Attacking Midfielders

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?

Robin van Persie

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.”

Robin van Persie

Robin van Persie
(Source: Squawka)

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.

Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie

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.


Izrasbo - June 3, 2014 Reply

that’ll never happen. He can pass the ball, that doesn’t mean he can be a perfect midfielder

Jonny Jakes - June 3, 2014 Reply

hitting a sweet cross field ball doesn’t make him a midfielder.He doesn’t have the all round game to dominate the midfield

Adam Joseph - June 3, 2014 Reply

England are doing the same as United did last season. Moving the team around to try and fit him in. Just don’t play him.

Denton Davey - June 3, 2014 Reply

“People for and against deploying Rooney as central midfielder all make very good points. Unfortunately, data supports both and neither at the same time.”

That’s right – “lies, damned lies, and statistics”.

TheWayneBoy’s no longer the primal force of three/four/five years ago, but he’s a damned-good “baller”. In that sense, he has the abilities to play just about anywhere on the pitch.

The point-at-issue has to be where he can make the most valuable contribution to the team – one assumes that in LVG’s plans, there’s no “i”in T-E-A-M. So, the key question will be: how to make the best use of Rooney’s wide portfolio of skills in such a way that optimizes his value to the team without marginalizing other players.

The evolution of this relationship will go a long way towards determining the success (or not) of next year’s team. We don’t know how this situation will evolve – but, surely, LVG won’t brown-nose TheWayneBoy as AgentMoyes did.

james vance - June 3, 2014 Reply

add Scholes to the graph using his average statistics over his last five years.Now there’s a challenge!

Subterranean Steve - June 4, 2014 Reply

Rooney is at a crossroads in his career and his future direction is uncertain. If he remains at United then he will not be able to do what he likes, as under Moyes.

He is not a number 10 playing in behind the striker. That is best suited to a player with the subtlety and vision of Mata or even Januzaj.

Rooney can compete with Van Persie for the central striker’s role or play in an attacking left side position as Ferguson had him do at times.

If he were to drop back from a striker’s position to midfield then a deeper lying role might suit him. He can challenge and win the ball in midfield, do a bit of fetching and carrying, and hit long sweeping passes. Like Scholes he can arrive late in the box in support of attacks and obviously is an excellent finisher. All the things Carrick should do but doesn’t.

Todd - June 4, 2014 Reply

How to solve a problem like Wayne Rooney? He doesn’t play well with a striking partner and he’s not really a number 10. He should be moved deeper as more of a number 8. Perhaps if he could partner Carrick in the middle of the pitch in a 4-2-3-1 the problems of the central midfield could be softened.
The problem, again, is that he doesn’t always fit this role, although this is completely down to his own mindset and refusal to actually play that position. Perhaps LvG can sit him down and sort him out.

geoff - June 4, 2014 Reply

I can’t believe what the discussion is all about. Rooney lacks the 1st touch. He lacks the movement & tactical awareness of a central midfielder or a #10. He is slow in thinking & gets easily dispossessed because he lacks the wit to get away from opponents in tight spaces.

He has the power, the physique & the ability to score a couple of goals. He can also tackle but better central midfielders like fernandinho, Yaya, Kroos, Shweini, Gundogan are known for their tactical positioning rather than running all over pitch & tacking players.

Its interesting that even the English coach must accommodate rooney their golden boy in the squad regardless. The campaign to make him captain of club & country will soon emerge after the world cup.

People talk of how rooney never fulfilled his potential. I have gone back to watch his games at everton 7 at united & honestly Rooney wasn’t promising to become a footballing great. He has just become what he promised in 2004. At 17yrs players of his age-group like Benzema, Ronaldo, messi and others like Bojan were technically gifted than him. He had an advantage over them in that he was exposed internationally by the British press.

My opinion is we should stop over indulging the player. He is not the Top 10 for the best #10 or #9……..
better #10’s are silva, mata, Cazorla, hazard,Nasri, Gotze, Oscar, Sneijder, Ozil, Kagawa, Totti
Better #9’s are Lewa, Aguero, Suarez, Falcao,Cavani, RVP, Mandzukic,Dzeko,Huntellar, Di natale,

The harsh truth is that Rooney is on an outrageous 5yr deal that he got after taking advantage of the overwhelmed Moyes & the clueless novice Edwoodward. We are trying to fix him a place & a role to play. There’s also a campaign to make him captain so that he secures his place in the 1st team… to make him club’s ambassador when he retires!!!!! Holy shit!!!!!! This must have made some players at the team wonder whats happening. Sir alex had his special players but he never let other players feel unworthy! Every player felt world class & ready to die for the team. You wonder why Vida left?……A whole captain of a team publicly deciding to leave midway into the season????????

If Van Gaal is to create a team that plays for one another & a group of players that feel equally important he has to make the big move & sell Rooney the first thing. I don’t care where he goes, whether chelsea or liverpool or man city. But i know this is highly unlikely. with the club’s obsession with rooney i won’t be surprised if van Gaal has been asked by Edwoodward that Rooney is not for sale at any price..That he is the white pele & the golden boy, the savior of English football.

Mike - June 4, 2014 Reply

You’re an idiot. No first touch? Are you insane, obviously thinking with your ass here. Yeah Ronaldo and Messi surpassed his ability, but Rooney is a better player than Bojan and Benzema. Look he may not be your traditional centre forward, but you won’t go on to say he lacks ability. He’s still one of the most gifted players in the world.

Ed - June 4, 2014 Reply

Rooney can trap it further than I can pass it, to borrow a phrase from the great George Best

geoff - June 4, 2014 Reply

Ouch! there goes a butthurt wazza fan boy !. Your insults say a lot about your thinking abilities & football knowledge.
Wazza lacks the 1st touch of a #10 , the composure of a #9 & the vision of a #8.

Next insult please!

Luke - June 5, 2014 Reply

Spot on mate. Barkley showed yesterday that he’s a better number 10 than Rooney. I just hope for England that Hodgson has the guts to play Rooney on the left – something he has to get used to at United as well, unless he wants to be sold. Kagawa/Mata/Januzaj better CAM, RVP a much better striker.

Andy boy - June 4, 2014 Reply

Rooney is a fat and overated englishman. I could say the same for a dozen english players. Shaw for 27 million is ridiculous, unproven englishman who has shone for only one season. Sturridge is the only English player deserving the hype he gets and Gerrard on a smaller scale. The rest is bobbins

Rantscist - June 4, 2014 Reply

For 300k a week we could have 3 great CM , aggressor, holding & creator!!!
Come the fuck on!! Just offload this rubbish together with clevershit and andreson and we instantly free up almost 20mil a year!
Drop nani & young for a 2mil fee each and further 8mil a years stays in the pocket
Those transfer plus the money we no longer pay to Vidic Ferdinand and Giggs (another 10mil a year) leaves our team with savings of around 40 fucking million wuid a year!!!
Powell, Zaha, Chicharito, Lingard can come in as replacements and we are good to go.
How simple is that??!

How the fuck could anyone believe for a split second that United is broke/have no money for transfers.
Apparently glazer cunts are not that interested in the whole idea of a clearout!!!

Can please someone just buy the fucking club!
Or just eliminate the parasites….


Rantscist - June 4, 2014 Reply

Useless Nani costs around 5mil a year
Useless Young costs around 4 mil a year
Anderson & Cleverley combined another 4 mil
Not having Rio and Vidic saves 7 mil a year

That is 20 mil a year saved.

Even if we dont buy anyone now we could at least offload those talentless losers and even make some money in fees, I reckon 15 mil for the whole bunch!

Why is nothing being made???!!!!
Why the fuck there is no activity in the market?

Teams are buying and selling already and those fucking parasites do fuck all!!!!!!!
What the fuck is going on…..

Or is it the new United Way – second second chances for the whole squad, carte blanche after clusterfuck of a season…. How long do we have to endure this farce?

The reaility is that we wont buy anyone before WC, hell we will probably repeat last years farce and buy another overpriced baller as a statenent of intent…. with no follow up whatsoeaver.

And when the window shuts we will listen to woodworm saying that there actually were no prospects beasue we dont play in european cups plus the fees were inflated.

And in the winter, when will we have been outside top 6 we will listen to the whole story again – a story about 200 mil transfer kitty that never was.

I am sick.

mongoletsi - June 5, 2014 Reply

Can’t believe I once knocked Jay Shon’s posts. These DATA RANTS are awesome. Good work.

Jay Shon - June 5, 2014 Reply

Thanks! Just about my only hobby and this statistics stuff I do for a living so it’s a nice combination.

Can’t write for shit so having pretty pictures and numbers do the talking really works!

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