Rooney returns – with no right to walk back into the team
There was just a hint of entitlement in the statement. Understandable, perhaps, from a player who has recently become his nation’s record goalscorer; one standing on the verge of achieving a similar feat at club level. Yet, in declaring that he doesn’t ‘need to fight for his place’ Wayne Rooney, a 30-year-old suffering the third year of diminishing returns, has pushed that envelope a little far. After all, there are now better players in almost every position Rooney might covet, for club and country. It is a critical juncture for a fading star.
Rooney’s recent knee injury, in a season of poor output and worse performances, has brought that observation into stark relief. Once the nation’s golden teenager, its great white hope, Rooney is now considered by many to be little more than a punch-drunk boxer seeking one last dance around the ring. In truth, while once part of an exclusive club, Rooney is now far from the world’s élite.
Consider Rooney’s recent performances. The former Evertonian has made 32 appearances across all competitions this season, scoring 14 goals and providing four assists. It is a reasonable return in another injury-disrupted campaign.
Dig a little beneath the surface and Rooney’s performance is exposed once more. He has scored just three times against teams in the top half of the Premier League this season: Stoke City, Liverpool and Everton. Indeed, nine of Rooney’s goals have come against undeniably weak opposition: Club Brugge, Derby County, Ipswich Town, Newcastle United, Sunderland and Sheffield United.
In a wider context, the real story is that Rooney’s goalscoring record per minute has declined year-on-year for the past three campaigns. And if he is not a goalscorer, nor is Rooney a creator, with the player’s number of assists falling over the same period, although the player’s average number of key passes-per-game remains in line with historical performance.
It is also fair to argue that Rooney is now neither the best striker, winger, number 10, nor midfielder at the club, while earning by the far the highest wages. Rooney may have long been cast aside, bar for historical whimsy and Louis van Gaal’s “special privileges.”
After all, Antony Martial’s rise to stardom in his début campaign for the club has been remarkable, even if the player’s 13 goals and six assists do not tell the full story of the 19-year-old’s quality. The Frenchman’s performances at number nine hint at a world-class striker in the making; comfortable with the ball at his feet, or running into space, Martial needs only to improve his composure in front of goal to become a 25-goal-a-season player.
At 10, Juan Mata’s two years at the club remain a source of frustration. The Spaniard is the most creative player at the club, and its most natural number 10, although his performances have not always kept up with the talent on offer. Still, Mata’s role in United’s mini new year revival was vital – and hinted at better things to come with more opportunities in the role.
Rooney, meanwhile, has just two goals, no assists and averages one key pass per game from the number 10 position this season. In the role, he actively harms not improves the team. Meanwhile, nothing in the player’s historical performance suggests that his future lies as a top-class central midfielder, although it is an observation that some have made of the 30-year-old. Based, presumably, on an assumption and not actual observation.
With England, Rooney scored against France in a friendly last November, and against Switzerland and San Marino in the autumn European Championship qualifiers. The 109-cap international struck seven times during 10 qualification games as England joined the 2016 party in France undefeated. It is the kind of performance that should guarantee Rooney a place not only in Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2016 squad, but the opening team.
"It is fair to argue that Rooney is neither the best striker, winger, number 10, nor midfielder at the club. Rooney may have been cast aside already bar for historical whimsy and Van Gaal’s special privileges."
Yet, Harry Kane’s rise as an international-quality forward, allied to Jamie Vardy’s outstanding season at club level with Leicester City, offers England manager Roy Hodgson some food for thought. It is, after all, precisely why the debate surrounding Rooney’s future at international level has raged over the past week.
In other areas of the pitch Danny Welbeck, Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and Dele Alli may have stronger claims on an attacking role in Hodgson’s team than Rooney. The player rejects the notion that he is under pressure at national level, even if the level of competition is high.
“No I don’t think I need to fight for my place,” he said. “I am back outside running now, then I will hope to be back in full training within the next week or 10 days so I am not too far away.
“Obviously it is great that the competition is there, it hasn’t always been there, but the quality we have got is there to see. It is exciting to be a part of and I can’t wait to get back fit. For the country it is going to be an exciting tournament and is something I am looking forward to and hopefully contributing goals.”
Still, the inherent limitations of alternatives may well ensure that Rooney remains key to Hodgson’s plans this summer. Kane is inexperienced, having scored four in 10 games for the national team. The Tottenham Hotspur player’s goal against Germany last week was his first as a starter at international level.
Vardy, meanwhile, has enjoyed a career-high campaign domestically – one of explosive pace and finishing. Yet, the Leicester striker has just two international goals, while at 29 being just a year younger than Rooney. Vardy has matched none of Rooney’s historical records or honours, although football is always about the here and now.
“It doesn’t please me too much that it is suggested now that the moment [Rooney] gets injured and doesn’t play he gets jettisoned in some way,” argues Hodgson.
“I have to repeat, he is our captain and he has captained the team extremely well in the last two years. He took us through a qualifying campaign where we had a complete success with 10 wins out of 10.”
Back at club level, the narrative of Rooney’s career has always been complex. He is both the leading English talent in a generation, United’s elder statesman, and a two-time transfer rebel. After 14 years at the top, Rooney’s talent may be on the wane, but his presence endures. It is why the player remains in consideration, even with the star fading fast.
Rooney will also finish his career with a series of personal and team records. Rooney’s 192 Premier League goals are more than Alan Shearer, Thierry Henry or Robbie Fowler had scored at the same age. In time – in all likelihood, next season – Rooney will pass the 249 scored by Bobby Charlton for United, as he has passed the great man’s record for England. When the player crosses that threshold he will have earned all the praise that comes.
He has won five Premier League titles, the Champions League, two League Cups, and a Club World Cup. In 2010, Rooney was named the PFA and Football Writers’ Player of the Year, four years after he collected back-to-back PFA Young Player of the Year awards. In 2004, Rooney was voted into the Euro 2004 team of the tournament – arguably the only successful international tournament he has enjoyed.
Yet, in a career context there are detractors with a point too; one far more nuanced than modernity typically allows. Teenage Rooney was a scorer of great goals and then even greater goals still. His game was a burst of electric excitement and, yet, refined beyond its years. On the pitch, Rooney was a man, both physically and mentally, long before he left adolescence. The player’s first touch was outstanding, despite contemporary evidence to the contrary, and his vision as finely tuned as any.
It is little wonder the game’s great and good saw so much in the 16-year-old Rooney. That 16-year-old blossomed, but perhaps not as brightly as once promised. It is a key factor in the changing narrative of Rooney’s career.
In the end, Rooney’s goals and years at United also come with a caveat about his loyalty. It is just one element that has added to the evolving sentiment about Rooney’s role at the club. One significantly enhanced by rapidly falling standards.
After all, as Gary Neville once noted, United is a “cynical club” – one that is prone to move on, while a player still hears the voice of entitlement calling. It is an observation Rooney might do well to remember.