The contract can wait: Rooney should be moved to midfield

February 16, 2014 Tags: , Opinion 21 comments
featured image

When David Moyes was appointed Manchester United manager last summer he was seen as the safe choice to grind out results in the Premier League; perhaps earning the club time to woo a more fashionable manager in the future. Yet, very few supporters expected to find United in such a lowly position heading into the final months of the season. The short-term fix of Juan Mata’s transfer has thus far failed to lift the Reds and the current English champion faces competing in the Europa League next season – if Moyes side even qualifies for Europe’s second tier.

The 81 crosses attempted by United against Fulham encapsulates the manager’s approach this season – a midfield two that remains deep, while United’s full-backs carry the ball to the final third. The nominal right-winger, on this occasion Mata, drifts and provide an option outside the box as the front two, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, try to connect with largely hopeful crosses. Instead of conducting the play, the World Cup and European Championship winner is reduced to mopping up clearances.

Still, Moyes’ strategy is set up around Rooney, van Persie and Mata. This bears resemblance to Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2007/08 side, with the Champions League winning team providing a platform for Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo to combine and tear apart teams on their own.

But deficiencies in defence and midfield have hampered United’s progress. Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand remain at the club though much of the trio’s pace has been weathered by too many seasons at the sharp end. The decision to let Gerard Pique go and keep Jonny Evans is becoming increasingly hard to justify, while Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have failed to establish themselves in the first team.

Evra’s lack of defensive nous in particular dictates cover from the left-wing and has significantly hampered United. In deploying Evra, Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck have often been asked to cover on the left. Welbeck has much potential and boasts more tools in the box, but Evra’s penchant for attacking places Young, who is more effective hugging the byline than the academy graduate, ahead in the left-wing berth. It is debatable whether Evra deserves such special treatment, but there is no standout candidate to displace the Frenchman.

Meanwhile, United continues to struggle in midfield. Six years ago Paul Scholes in his deep-lying prime partnered Michael Carrick in Moscow. The former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder is now accompanied by Tom Cleverley. Box-to-box midfielders are in vogue, while more technically inclined teams often include a central midfielder with pace and a bag of tricks. United, by stark contrast, remains far too static in the engine room.

On the right flank Rafael da Silva is a stereotypical Brazilian full-back and the textbook approach to accommodate two attacking full-backs is to deploy two holding midfielders. Rafael is far more defensively solid than his counterpart on the left, although Jones or Smalling have played at right-back as often as the former Fluminense defender in any case.

In forward areas, unlike the attacking trident in Moscow, there is little pace and power, with the onus falling on the full-backs and central midfielders to deliver the ball to the final third. With United weak in central areas, Moyes’ side has resorted to a direct approach, although the first choice number 10, Rooney, has never been the one to hold up the ball.

Moyes should have deployed a central midfielder capable of supporting his forwards, although a deep defensive line forced by United’s ageing central defenders has complicated the tactical framework.

The Scot experimented using Carrick in a more attacking role during pre-season and the chase for Thiago Alacantara, Cesc Fabregas and Ander Herrera indicates that the former Everton manager is well aware of a need for thrust from his engine room. Despite evidence suggesting otherwise, Maroune Felliani has long claimed his best position is in a deep midfield role, yet the Belgian has not yet broken into the first team while Cleverley has largely failed to contribute offensively.

These problems at full-back, the centre of defence and particularly central midfield have contributed to United’s downfall – and with just 12 games to salvage the season radical solutions must now be considered.

Rooney is the only player capable of providing this much needed thrust from deep even if the Englishman considers number 10 role his natural position. When chasing a goal or two Moyes has often deployed the former Everton striker as a box-to-box midfielder. And the political nightmare that could follow Rooney’s long-standing deployment in midfield should now be risked with European football at stake.

Another potential solution to elicit more dynamism from Rooney and van Persie is to use Mata in more central areas. While Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj have often been fouled into submission, Mata can handle the Premier league’s physicality and is adept at playing through balls to the front two.

Moyes could switch to a 4-2-3-1 system, with a narrow attacking midfield three. Rooney, Kagawa, Mata, Januzaj and Welbeck can combine and introduce a measure of unpredictability that United desperately needs. The suspicion, however, is that Moyes is uncomfortable with flair players. Developing chemistry between Rooney, van Persie and Mata is daunting enough for the Scot without adding another player into the mix.

Mata’s acquisition was in part opportunistic, but immediate deployment of the Spaniard suggests that Moyes had a plan for the former Chelsea player of the year. Repeated aimless crossing into the box with Mata waiting for second balls might not live up to United fans’ expectation, but the strategy has shown potential with the Spaniard assisting van Persie three times in four appearances.

Yet, living off clearances and wayward crosses are far too unpredictable for Mata to work with unless Moyes chooses to deploy an old-fashioned target man that could provide a genuine aerial threat and open space for more technically gifted teammates to exploit.

Whatever the change, there is a strong rationale to move Rooney into a new deeper role. The Scouser might not be happy, but it is a move that would ameliorate United’s midfield problems in the short-term. One that holds the key to United’s post-Ferguson fortunes.

Rooney has been indulged by Moyes, perhaps deservedly so given that the Scouser has been the most creative United player this season. Upsetting any player is unwise, but participation in the Champions League should be prioritised.

The Liverpool-born forward has created 2.1 chances per Premier League game this season, but his creativity will not be missed in the final third following Mata’s acquisition. United’s  most expensive signing has made 3.25 key passes per appearance and already boasts the best dribbling success rate in the team despite essentially being plan B to Rooney’s lead.

Next season holds much promise, but it is still 11 points away.


JD - February 16, 2014 Reply

completely agree. There’s nary a one who can run the show from a Paul Scholes esque pov

Amnon Zohar - February 17, 2014 Reply

Continue to ignore the key issue. Moyes has no vision or strategy but the obvious ” kick and run” and “cross and pray”. This will not yield results at the top tier of modern football ( watch Liverpool, Arsenal, MCI , Chelsea , Bayren, Barca, Real even PSG to understand how far behind is United “system”)
Conclusion: Moyes has to go. Not making Europe this year will deter world class players from joining United when they have so many much more attractive options. Who? Anybody but Moyes (personality) is the first order. Giggs would be better Ole would be even better, Klops will be perfect and Pep would be heaven once he finishes the Bayren season. United management do not understand that the manager attracts and motivates the players not the other way around. Do it!

Subterranean Steve - February 17, 2014 Reply

quote: ‘The suspicion, however, is that Moyes is uncomfortable with flair players.’

That is a powerful indictment of Moyes mediocrity.

The best United sides under Busby and Ferguson have always valued flair (with a bit of steel thrown in) and this has enhanced United’s longstanding reputation as an attacking side.

The creative element of United should be built around Mata, Januzaj and Kagawa with Fellaini in the defensive midfield. Rooney should be back up front partnering RVP and doing what he does best – scoring goals. I’m not saying he couldn’t play a midfield role but i prefer him in an active goal scoring position.

We should be more attack-minded and let other teams worry about us. My choice with current squad.

De Gea
Raphael, Smalling, Jones(Vidic), Evra
Mata, Kagaw,Januzaj
Rooney, RVP

(Hardly a dedicated winger in sight)

Of course Moyes mediocrity will put paid to that.

RobDiablo - February 17, 2014 Reply

Your proposed lineup is ridiculous. With Rafa and Evra bombing forward, you’d take what is already one of the most porous midfields in the league and halve its numbers, leaving only the useless Fellaini to shield the inexperienced Smalling and Jones. It wouldn’t work, even if you used Carrick, who is a much better midfielder than Fellaini. The goals against would skyrocket as United fell even further into mid-table mediocrity.

JP - February 17, 2014 Reply

I used to play a similar system on FIFA and lose horribly every time. United would have 5% possession with that lineup.

Subterranean Steve - February 17, 2014 Reply

Rafa and Evra don’t have to “bomb forward” as you put it. That is part of the problem now. We constantly put the ball out wide to weak attackers.

Mata, Kagawa, Januzaj, Rooney and RVP would be the attacking force, no need for overlapping fullbacks. I would prefer more defensive-minded fullbacks than Rafa and Evra, because their role would be mainly defensive to support Fellaini (or Carrick or Fletcher – but only one of them in the defensive mid-field role not two), but they are what we have.

Playing intelligent, creative, controlled passing football with flexibilty and movement, Januzaj, Mata, Kagawa, Rooney and RVP can use the full width of the pitch to create more space between and behind any two defensive lines. It’s all about movement and controlling the ball not static roles or labelled positions ie the number 10 role, whatever that is meant to be.

That visionary, attacking/ball controlling five would be a handful for any team on the planet and surely a back four plus one defensive midfielder, i.e. five defensive players as and when required, could respond to counter attacks.

Do you want to utilise your best most exciting, creative players or do you want the negativity and caution of Moyes mediocrity?

RobDiablo - February 17, 2014 Reply

I want to see the best utilization of United’s best players, but that isn’t an option with your lineup. If Rafa and Evra aren’t “bombing forward”, two-thirds of their effectiveness is lost. You have also made the absolute worst mistake in believing that Fellaini (slow of foot and thought) could be the man to screen the back four and move the ball from the defensive third into the attacking third. How are your ‘fantastic five’ going to create havoc in the attacking third without the ball?

The best use of the squad currently at Moyes’ disposal would involve RvP up top, with Mata playing behind the striker, Januzaj on the left, and Rooney on the right (or better still, partnering Carrick in midfield). Unfortunately, Rooney does not want to play where he could be best utilized. preferring instead to create a logjam at the ’10’ position, where he kept Kagawa from giving his best last season and Mata this.

barry - February 17, 2014

Why would you want to take our most creative player for the last 4 years in Rooney and play him out of position i agree that fellani hasn’t been good enough so far but you forget he plays as a defensive midfielder for Belgium and moyes bought him as a defensive mid fir Everton where he played for his first 2 seasons at everton with excellent stats rafa and evra can still get forward but mot both at the same time plus a similar formatioon works foe Chelsea and city and barca and Bayern and sirrmund so why wouldn’t work for us those front 5 would terrify teams and they wouldn’t be willing to put men forward out of fear of those front 5

RobDiablo - February 17, 2014

I don’t actually want to play Rooney in the midfield, but he is miles better in that position than Cleverley, Fletcher, and Fellaini.

I’d rather Rooney played as the striker with Mata behind him, because Mata is a much better creator with the ball. Unfortunately, like most of the suggested permutations, it will not be feasible to line up this way until the midfield is fixed.

Mongoletsi - February 18, 2014 Reply

// That visionary, attacking/ball controlling five would be a handful for any team on the planet //


Moyes should be thinking the same thing.

I think we’re all agreed that our season is basically now like being a goal down in the 2nd half of a cup game. Safety-first didn’t work, and won’t get us out of this hole. We need to attack, attack, attack.

Even if Moyes thinks “let’s play to our strengths”, he must surely realise that our real quality is in the top 1/3.

kunal - February 17, 2014 Reply

Moyes has balls to tell Rooney to play in midfield regularly.. He does not know where to play Mata, or how to play all of them together.. He just rolls the dice and hopes for the best number..

The Red Devil - February 17, 2014 Reply

I’m inclined to go with the opposite and make Rooney the main striker (as he was after Ronnie left).

If RvP wants to leave, let him leave.

Then play Januzaj and Kagawa slightly wide with Mata behind Rooney.

We’d be terribly exposed but I do miss the 3-2 scorelines of our treble-winning season! 🙂

I just don’t think Rooney can play in midfield – he’s certainly no Scholes replacement – not in a million years.

M.A.S.H. - February 17, 2014 Reply

said it for ages-closest thing to scholes in the English game.

red josh - February 17, 2014 Reply

I been saying the same thing for about a month,move Rooney into midfield,he wouldn’t be a patch on scholes in his pomp but would be 10 times better than cleverley(who i do feel a bit sorry for,he has gone backwards in my opinion under moyes)this would allow Mata to play as a 10,happy days!!

MS Assefa - February 17, 2014 Reply

This is the 2nd worst action undertook by United in what has been a span of less than a year. But when a club has history of appointing a longterm manager based on his passport, with no safeguards and procedures, it wont be that far a strech to pay a streaky Scouse Ronaldo and Messi money.
The level of mismanagement at United is quite amateurish at times this season both on and off the pitch. And for the so called ‘real’ United fans its time to hang another poster at OT, Rooney this time. Preferably it should be him and Moyes, double teaming, and having their way with the United badge. What has gone wrong at one of the lands biggest football institutions.

Sean Cronin - February 17, 2014 Reply


Subterranean Steve - February 17, 2014 Reply

Why do you say that the the signing of Juan Mata is a ‘short-term fix’?

He ought to be a key part of United’s future.

The Adnan Bounce - February 18, 2014 Reply

If only he could play the role. In a cM3 there’s a chance

Mongoletsi - February 18, 2014 Reply

Agree on your 4-2-3-1 suggestion.

We have an embarrassment of riches in the 2nd striker / v.attacking midfielder position. Kagawa being woefully underused.

+ 3 of Rooney / Mata / Kagawa / Januzaj

Sitting in front of Carrick & Felliani/Fletcher/Cleverly

On paper it should give opponents nightmares.

Not that Moyes will go for it.

Cantona77 - February 19, 2014 Reply

“The suspicion, however, is that Moyes is uncomfortable with flair players. ”

THAT in itself is all the rationale, motivation and reason you need to get into the #Moyesout brigade….

Subterranean Steve - February 21, 2014 Reply

It could be enlightening for some posters on this website to seriously look at how Bayern Munich set up and play. home.

Guardiola would never play two defensive/holding midfielders of the Carrick, Cleverley, Fletcher ( or Fellaini) type as well as a back line of four.

Of course we haven’t the midfield quality of Bayern, but we should still be playing to our strengths. If Rooney wants to fetch and carry then so be it, but of clearly he really is a striker. He is not the best attacking/play-making midfielder. He’s about the fourth best (given the potential of Januzaj).

Add your comment