The sacrifice: Wayne Rooney’s European Journey

In the build up to Wednesday’s 1-1 draw between Real Madrid and Manchester United, the Madrid-based paper Marca depicted Wayne Rooney as ‘El Coco’ – the bogeyman. This was widely misreported in the British press as an insult, where it really acknowledged the city’s fear of the Rooney’s ability. Madridistas might, therefore, have felt a little let down by Rooney’s performance on the night of a game in which he never seemed to get going.

Many commentators are left underwhelmed after watching Rooney on the European stage. To brand his contributions as a failure, however, is to totally misunderstand the role that the striker is often asked to play when facing the best teams that Europe has to offer.

Memories of the 2006/7 Champions League campaign brings rise to mixed emotions for United fans. Nobody who witnessed United’s 7-1 demolition of Roma in the quarter-final home-leg will ever forget the match – a performance of free-flowing attacking football at its best, with Rooney linking with Cristiano Ronaldo and Alan Smith, among others, to dismantle the team from Italy’s capital. Rooney scored in both legs of the tie.

The next round offered up a similar feast of football at Old Trafford, where Rooney was the star of the show, scoring a brace to help his team edge out AC Milan 3-2. The joy was short-lived however, as United went on to the San Siro to face a 3-0 embarrassment at the hands of a Káká-inspired Milan.

The defeat was enough to revolutionise Sir Alex Ferguson’s European tactics – and with it Rooney’s role – forever. Never again would Ferguson allow his team such attacking freedom against the top sides.

When faced with Barcelona in the 2008 Champions League semi-finals, for example, Ferguson’s main concern was to stop Lionel Messi, at that time a right-winger for the Catalans. Ferguson’s response was to start Rooney on the left-wing, a position that quickly evolved into an auxiliary left-back as United defended ever deeper to hold onto a 1-0 lead in the tie. The strategy worked and United went on to win the competition at the cost of Rooney’s attacking flair.

Ferguson’s side was not so lucky against Barcelona in 2009, when United reached a second consecutive Champions League Final. Rooney was sacrificed once again, playing astonishingly deep as the Catalans’ supreme midfield destroyed England’s leading club in a 2-0 defeat.

It is very rare to have a player of Rooney’s attacking quality that is willing to carry out defensive tasks on the biggest stage. A breathtaking sacrifice to make.

Between 2009 and 2011, with Ronaldo departed and Robin van Persie yet to arrive, Ferguson deployed Rooney at the spearhead of United’s attack. In the European knock-out phases over those two years Rooney scored eight goals in 10 games, including a goal in the 2011 Final and two sensational braces against AC Milan in 2010.

Proof, if some need it, that Rooney can perform on the biggest stage as an attacking force when he is empowered to by Ferguson’s tactical thinking.

And yet, the England forward found himself stuck out on the wing again last Wednesday night in Madrid, charged with limiting the impact of former team-mate Ronaldo and the German playmaker Mesut Özil. Rooney’s role was part of a patchwork of tactics used to nullify the Madrid threat, with Danny Welbeck and Phil Jones also selected for their tireless work rate.

The strategy worked with United limiting Madrid to a single goal, while Ferguson’s side created plenty of scoring opportunities too. In the aftermath Jones’ performance, out of position in a deep-lying role, has been hailed as a complete success, while Rooney has suffered familiarly unfair criticism from the fourth estate. The Sun’s Steven Howard, for example, asks “Where does Rooney go when you need him?”

Indeed, if United does succeed in progressing to the quarter-finals of this year’s Champions League, it is very unlikely that Rooney will receive much of the credit. Nobody else in Ferguson’s side will have sacrificed nearly as much to get their team there though.

Rooney’s impact in Europe, while understated when deployed so often out of position, deserves better. It is, after all, a rare quality to combine tireless defensive ability with exceptional attacking talent. It is even rarer to selflessly sacrifice the latter for the former whenever called to do so.

Madrid wanted the bogeyman. Instead the Spaniards got a martyr.

 

Rooney’s European record:
Champions League: 68 played, 28 goals
UEFA Cup: 3 played, 3 goals
Rooney is the highest English goalscorer in Champions League history

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Comments

  1. RobDiabloRobDiablo says

    A problem for both Rooney and United is that he is not only one of the side’s two best forwards, he is one of its two best midfielders as well.

  2. Denton davey says

    In contrast to most of the post-match reviews, I thought that TheWayneBoy did a good job except for the one moment when he lost the guy who crossed the ball to Ronaldo. Otherwise, he was active and combative which was his job for the match. On the other hand, RVP has got all kinds of kudos for “holding up the ball” BUT he missed a sitter and had two reasonably good chances saved and hit off the woodwork. NOT a good end-product for the guy who was UTD’s “designated poacher”. Actually, RVP looks a bit out-of-sorts and I think that SAF could have taken him off for Chicharito rather than taking off TheWayneBoy and bringing on Anderson who damned-nearly gave away the ball (and the match) to Modric. Wise AFTER fact ?

  3. says

    It has always appeared to me that Rooney was much more concerned with winning that his individual performance, when CR7 was here Rooney was will to sacrifice his game and would do the dirty work so that Ronaldo could be the superstar.

    There have been many things that Rooney has done while he has been with United but I have never questioned his desire for the team to win.

  4. AnantaxAnantax says

    I think Rooney’s attitude and willingness to play out of position for the team is exemplary.
    I also believe that Rooney is a key part of United, I wish him well and I hope he stays with us for a long time.
    But I do have to agree with the implied thesis that Rooney is not (yet) a world beater. GNev said of Ronaldo that he feels that sometimes if they can hold on in games CR7 would do something magical and win it for them. I dont yet feel the same way of Rooney.
    His goal at Fulham was a true class act, and that won us the game. But I somehow feel that is the exception rather than the rule
    Zidane scored 2 goals in the 98 world cup final vs Brazil…as a midfielder. Keano scored and led us to victory over Juve in the CL semifinal.
    Is he our 2nd best midfielder – I would heartily disagree. his workrate is v good, but his first touch this season is atrocious, his passing is more often awry than not. Vs Madrid he didnt even help out a lot too much in defence. If you look at the Coentraue 2nd shot thats blocked by DDg feet, Rooney left early instead of properly marking his man
    So in a nutshell: I love and rate Rooney. He will get better. i hope he stays with us for a long time. But brilliant talented player that he is, he is not yet our Ronaldo, our Messi, our Cantona. And boy do I hope he proves me wrong, quickly!

  5. fred says

    What Rooney does for the team is just amazing tbf.. I dont think any of the star players such as ronaldo or messi would so willingly accept getting shunted to positions for the teams benefit..

  6. Alfonso BedoyaAlfonso Bedoya says

    Rooney will never get the credit he deserves playing under Ferguson… I doubt there’s another manager, anywhere in the game, that would take a talent like Rooney, and use him the way Ferguson does… it’s a disgrace… instead of buying a left winger, stick Rooney there… hole in the midfield?, stick Rooney there… need a man-marking job done?, Rooney can do it.

    But, what do I know??? Ferguson has won everything there is to win, so in the eyes of most fans, he can do no wrong… afterall… winning is all that matters…

  7. sheesh says

    The Rooney of today simply doesn’t excite me. I miss the early days when he was brash and exciting, unafraid to ruffle feathers. When was the last time he smashed the ball into the net ffs? That goal v Newcastle where he was arguing with the ref? Maybe his metatarsal injuries have been the problem.
    I think he’s mellowed as he’s become older. He’s clearly one of our most influential players but he doesn’t have that same fire in the belly and I think that’s a real shame.
    I can see why Fergie puts him in different positions as he is often lauded as a complete player but he will never again be that player I want to see. He nowadays tends to drift in and out of form and this is a season where he has supposedly been alright.

  8. dozer says

    The excuses for Rooney are out already before the second game. How likely is it that he’ll have a man of the match performance even if manutd set up a 4-4-2 with Rooney playing in his favoured behind the striker position?

  9. Twisted Blood says

    Didn’t Rooney put the ball in for Welbeck’s goal? The guy does everything and it’s never enough. When we did set up the team for him when Ronnie left, he was glorious, scored bags of goals and was tearing it up right up to the CL game against Bayern when he got the ankle knock that ruined the next 6 months. He did all that after he put his foot through it at Newcastle. He’s our most important player full stop. I love what what Ronnie can do but can’t stand the man. We all would turn away when he dove, whined and celebrated for himself whilst blowing off teammates and just admired the boy’s talent. We all sing his name because we miss his feats and love the fact that United are still associated with a player arguably the best in the world but ask yourself this: Would Ronnie put in a shift like Wednesday night to help the team? Alternatively, could you ever imagine Rooney blowing off Fergie and freelancing like Ronnie did in the 2009 CL final? The answer to both questions is never.

  10. Will says

    Great article. Agree, Rooney is a team player, and a very good one. United have a group who will work for each other and win for each other; it’s the difference just now.

  11. uncleknobheadffsuncleknobheadffs says

    dozer said:
    The excuses for Rooney are out already before the second game. How likely is it that he’ll have a man of the match performance even if manutd set up a 4-4-2 with Rooney playing in his favoured behind the striker position?

    as likely as it was before the city game

  12. Pikey McScumPikey McScum says

    Alfonso Bedoya said:
    Rooney will never get the credit he deserves playing under Ferguson… I doubt there’s another manager, anywhere in the game, that would take a talent like Rooney, and use him the way Ferguson does… it’s a disgrace… instead of buying a left winger, stick Rooney there… hole in the midfield?, stick Rooney there… need a man-marking job done?, Rooney can do it.

    But, what do I know??? Ferguson has won everything there is to win, so in the eyes of most fans, he can do no wrong… afterall… winning is all that matters…

    You could almost levy the same argument with regards to Danny Welbeck, who arguably showed what he’s capable of against Madrid playing in his preferred/natural position.

    The thing is, whilst I agree with you, I think it’s pretty special that he can be so versatile and still perform at such a high standard (most of the time).

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