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