When Wayne Rooney executed a full-blooded tackle on Ramires near his own corner flag during Manchester United’s recent draw with Chelsea Old Trafford rose to its feet in appreciation. It was about the most exciting thing that happened during a game that said much about Jose Mourinho’s negativity and, potentially, offered a glimpse at David Moyes’s approach too.
That moment seemed to crystallise the ensuing narrative about Rooney’s performance: that he was playing well, looking motivated and was prepared to give his best for the club. Except, Rooney didn’t actually play that well. He did okay; a six out of 10. But a player that demands to be centre stage for club and country ought to reach a higher level than when his team really need him.
As most journalists and many fans rushed to heap praise on Rooney the principle justification was that the striker “worked hard.” In other words Rooney “ran around a lot,” making the Scouser a glorified, and very well paid Park Ji-Sung.
Perhaps fans were shocked by the novelty of Rooney putting effort into something other than trying to leave the club. But a high work-rate is surely the minimum asked of a professional footballer, especially when that footballer is supposedly a world-class.
It is an English world view; that football that is defined by grit, determination and will-power above technical ability. That’s why reports about Rooney’s performance focused on his work-rate and not, for example, his inability to release Robin van Persie through on goal when, instead, the Englishman elected to try and beat Petre Cech from 30 yards.
More widely this attitude is why the enduring images from the English national team over the last 30 years are of Paul Ince and Terry Butcher with blood-stained bandages on their head. It’s why the enduring national results are of missed penalties in shoot-outs, where technique and mental strength are tested to their limit and ‘our brave boys’ are found wanting.
It’s why the English love to support the underdog, praising effort and courage, rather than celebrating success, and with that the ruthlessness, and above all, skill it takes to reach the pinnacle of the game.
It’s certain that observers from other countries – those that value skill and technique – looked on in astonishment at England’s midfield at Euro 2012, with Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard chasing shadows and consistently giving the ball away. Meanwhile Michael Carrick, the only English player in the past 20 years who comes close to Paul Scholes’ passing ability, remained at home.
Bringing the argument back to United, this attitude is why Rooney’s name has always been sung so loudly, even when his attitude off the pitch, and at times his performances on it, have not warranted the adoration. And the love of effort is why Dimitar Berbatov, who played the game with poise, skill and a Cantona-esque degree of arrogance, was criticised for being ‘lazy’. The Bulgarian didn’t steam into tackles like a madman, but rather gave an impression of being a god among mortals – it made him brilliant fun to watch.
It seems working hard, or running around a lot, proffers players an unusually high amount of leeway too. And to many, it seems that these ‘qualities’ are valued more than technical ability.
But it’s difficult to think of the last time Rooney lit up a game with any of the qualities that made him such an exciting prospect when he was a teenager. The 28-year-old does still get into good positions, both between the lines and in the penalty box, and he has good vision, but they alone are not qualities that make a world-class player. It would be a big stretch to name Rooney in the top 20 players in Europe at the moment.
Put it another way, if Rooney didn’t sport his Roy of the Rovers-esque habit of charging around the pitch, chasing the ball, with a face of determination and rage, would he really be as highly regarded in England? Certainly not after his indifferent form over the past two seasons.
It is telling that Rooney has asked to leave United twice, and on neither occasion did United receive a bid from a club outside of England.
The observation may sound harsh, and of course even since Rooney’s decline began two to three years ago, he has still produced some game-defining moments, but these tend to be surrounded by a greater mediocrity.
United has begun the season requiring more creativity. There has been a worrying lack of invention and creativity in the last two games, and it is no surprise that the Reds failed to score in either. But what United didn’t need against Liverpool and Chelsea was more effort – the players ought to be doing that anyway.
Besides, Moyes’ side contains plenty of players who do work hard, but while Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia get their shirts sweaty, neither beats a defender, creates chances, or scores goals.
What United really needs from Rooney now is for him to get back to his best – and that means he needs to do more than work hard. Rooney needs to re-discover that edge that made him terrify defenders; he needs to re-discover his ability to be a creative and goalscoring fulcrum of the side.
Yet, if retaining Rooney and using the striker regularly means United ends up with more bluster and little end product, while Shinji Kagawa sits on the bench, then Moyes’ men will continue to struggle to break down defences. Just as the side did against Chelsea when, for all of Rooney’s supposed good work, the home side failed to create a clear-cut chance.
Rooney, of course, is not the only player who needs to contribute more, but while Young, for example, has never shown match-winning ability at United’s standard, the Scouser has. And that’s why it is particularly frustrating to hear Rooney being praised for ‘working hard’ on the pitch, as if that is somehow noble, when he has the ability to contribute far more.
If Rooney re-elevates himself to the level seen prior to the 2010 World Cup there is little doubt he should partner van Persie in attack. At his best, Rooney is a special player, but the one on show against Chelsea is not the player United really needs.
Retaining the striker at Old Trafford could be the most impactful decision made by the new manager in his first summer at the club. Time will tell whether it turns out to be a positive or a negative for the club.