It is difficult to accept but the current Manchester United side is simply not good enough to impose its style on other teams. No shame in that though – only one team in the world, Barcelona, is capable of doing that. So broadly speaking, Sir Alex Ferguson faces two options: maximising the team’s attacking potential to take advantage of opponents’ weaknesses or setting out to defend and minimise opponents’ chances of scoring.
Complexity of the modern game is such that those two ‘ideals’ often actualise to the same time. In the recent tie against Real Madrid, for example, the Scot pitted Nani, United’s best dribbler, against Alvaro Arbeloa, the weak link in any Real Madrid line-up. At the same time, the manager deployed Danny Welbeck to take Xabi Alonso, the metronome of Real Madrid’s attacking play, out of the game. This is a job that would normally have been given to Wayne Rooney, who was surprisingly found on the bench.
Rooney has since started, and scored against, both Chelsea and Reading to quell media stories of a summer departure, but questions about his worth remain.
Time flies. Wayne “remember the name” Rooney is now 27. The two-time winner of the English player of the year, Rooney has enjoyed a storied career, but there is no denying that more was expected of him. The striker is one of the best, but he should have been among the very best – up there with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi among the game’s élite. Instead, at least in the big games, the Englishman is more often charged with doing the defensive work.
Jonathan Wilson of Inverting the Pyramid fame once described Rooney as an “advanced box-to-box player.” Rooney has become something of a jack of all trades. His all-roundedness has been a great asset though. When playing as a number ten, Rooney harnesses his goal-scoring instincts to great effects. As a striker, he helps out in midfield.
In fact, it is this versatility that enables Ferguson to use Rooney to nullify opposition threat. Ji-Sung Park, and to lesser extent Antonio Valencia, have also been used in the same role, but offer less attacking prowess than the United number 10. The Scot can deploy Rooney to babysit the opposition left-back, for example, and count on the player to be an active and devastating participant in counter-attack.
Lately though, Rooney has been dropping the ball defensively. In the 2010/11 Champions League final against Barcelona he left Sergio Busquets free, which allowed Barcelona to completely dominate midfield. Against Italy in Euro 2012, Rooney’s nonchalant marking of Andrea Pirlo instigated Joe Hart to publicly chastise the England striker.
Just a few weeks ago, Rooney’s failure to stick to Fabio Coentrao resulted, among others, in a shot that forced an exceptional save from David De Gea.
One major problem, perhaps the major problem, is the decline in Rooney’s physical assets. The former Evertonian has lost a yard of pace and can no longer cover the occasional lapse in defensive positioning. Rooney, wanting perhaps to be more of a fulcrum, could very well be fed up with being a defensive player shunted out to the flanks, although this theory is directly at odds with his chasing of ‘lost causes’ during games. Ferguson is too canny a man manager to deploy someone of that mindset to do the dirty work anyway.
This deterioration of physical attributes carries worrying repercussions. Rooney has never been the greatest technically; never a trickster in the Messi mould. Instead, he used his pace and agility to get past players. With this blistering pace under question, it is becoming rarer that Rooney beats his man.
The Champions League is – pardon the Americanism – a whole other ball game than the Premier League. For one, teams at the business end of the tournament are of better quality. In turn, the competition causes teams, wary of the opposition threat, to be more defensive and patient. More sides have come to adopt a counter-attacking mindset and, in turn, it causes a vicious cycle of ever deeper play.
Additionally, some managers have begun deploying players to limit the influences of deep-lying midfielders and fullbacks, whose influence grows as the play is stretched.
In this context it has become harder to trust Rooney with the defensive job – Sir Alex’ decision to use Danny Welbeck over the former Everton player to mark Alonso in the recent tie against Madrid at Old Trafford is proof.
In fact Rooney’s primacy in any position is under threat. He no longer has the pace to trouble other teams in the counterattack. Welbeck, however, does. Javier Hernández and Robin Van Persie are better finishers, while in Shinji Kagawa United has a number ten who is faster, smarter and more technically gifted than Rooney.
The Englishman edges each in physical strength, but European referees are happier than Premier League counterparts to blow the whistle.
There is no denying that Rooney is still a fine all-round player and one exceptionally suited for the Premier League. Few are ready to discard the 28-year-old from United’s squad, but there are equally plenty of questions to answer.
Slowly but surely Rooney’s physical decline will accelerate – not aided by the fact that he does not take good care of his body. This is more than troubling.
By contrast Ryan Giggs’ physical decline is more than made up by excellent technical skills and better understanding of the game. Rooney has shown no sign of improvement in these fields.
United is big enough that the Reds can afford to keep Rooney around – even at the reported £250,000 per week – but Rooney’s is an asset that is also at its peak. Which begs the question: should United sell?
Despite United’s huge Premier League lead, Ferguson may still spend in the summer. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are limited at best, while Luis Nani is erratic and could very well be gone by the start of next season anyway. Given the importance of width in the modern game, United desperately needs some new stardust in the area considering Wilfred Zaha is still raw.
In midfield, Michael Carrick’s successor will be required sooner or later. Despite letting his colleagues do the harrying, Carrick often tops the ‘ground covered’ charts because he is constantly on the move, closing down angles and taking up good positions. In fact, deep-lying playmakers are so important that Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox considers Carrick’s absence as one of key reasons why United was knocked out of the Champions League last season. Replacing the Geordie will be undoubtedly expensive.
Moreover, in Rooney United has an asset that has every possibility of depreciating sharply. With additions needed in the squad, and relatively little money to spend, there is a solid argument to letting Rooney go – after all there are already players within the squad who can more or less replicate his contribution.