“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”
There is not much to Les Ulis, a collection of shabby concrete and ill-concieved mid-century tower blocks, born of the booming 1960s French economy. It is a town far from the emotional heart of the student uprisings that took place later in the decade and the cultural renaissance that followed.
How close is Louis Van Gaal to achieving his philosophy? The Dutchman’s side dropped its first points of the campaign against Newcastle United on Saturday — and the Manchester United family wept at the heinous crime that is a goalless draw. United struggled in the final third of the pitch against a resolute Geordie defence, which was happy to park the bus and take a solitary point. The visitors almost stole the match at the death with a rare counter-attack.
As statements go, Wayne Rooney’s performance under Aston Villa’s Friday night lights, said everything. Blowing hard by the end, in Manchester United’s second successive 1-0 victory, the Scouser looked far from match sharp. In truth the game passed Rooney by: second best to every ball, rarely involved in the visitors’ limp attack and one-paced when in possession. It was one of the former Evertonian’s very worst performances in Red.
So many riches earned, so little return delivered. Manchester United’s three premier strikers – Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao – cost the club some £60 million in transfer and loan fees combined. Old Trafford’s bean counters will add £43 million to that bill in the now very unlikely event that the Colombian signs permanently next summer. Factor in £830,000 per week – or more than £40 million per season – the club spends on wages between to the lavishly paid trio and United continues to make a stupendous outlay for a hugely disappointing campaign.
The raw numbers tell at least part of story behind United’s failed attack this season. Van Persie has 10 goals and two assists in 26 appearances across all competitions; Rooney nine and four in 25; and Falcao four and four in 19. If United’s ever-changing tactical shape is of little help to the trio, then nor does any lay claim to personal excellence either. The Englishman’s shot accuracy, for example, is just 50 per cent this season, with Van Persie only three percentage points better and Falcao accurate from 63 per cent of shots taken. None compares favourably to Premier League top goalscorer Diego Costa, who has 17 league goals at a 71 per cent shooting accuracy.
Dig a little deeper and the trio has contributed too little to United’s attack beyond the combined 23 goals and 10 assists this season. Rooney has created a touch over 30 chances over the campaign, with the Englishman most frequently deployed at ’10’ or in an attacking central midfield role. It reflects even more poorly on Rooney that the 29-year-old fails to make the top 20 best passers by accuracy at United let alone in the country.
Van Persie and Falcao fare no better on the creative front. The Dutchman has fostered 23 opportunities this season and Falcao just 13. Neither is heavily involved in United’s build-up either – Van Persie averages just over 20 passes per game; Falcao less than that.
Beyond the numbers neither Van Persie and Falcao, nor Saturday’s pairing of the Dutchman and Rooney, have developed any real understanding. Rooney passed to Van Persie just six times during United’s 2-1 defeat in Wales; the former Arsenal forward returned the compliment on three occasions. Nine passes from a total of 581 United made on the day. It was just seven in total between Falcao and Van Persie when United beat Burnley 3-1 at Old Trafford last week. None of it speaks well of three supposedly world-class forwards that form the backbone of United’s broken strikeforce.
Of the trio only Rooney is guaranteed a place at the club next season – and that has far less to do with the Englishman’s performances over the past eight months than his perpetual status at the club. As a striker the Englishman’s output has declined in recent seasons. The former Evertonian scored 19 and made 17 assists under David Moyes; it was 16 and 13 two years ago; and 35 and five when Rooney was deployed up-front for the campaign in 2011/12.
In midfield Rooney has routinely disappointed, in part with average distribution, but mostly with an apparent inability to adapt to the ebb and flow of United’s game. It is not often, if ever, that United’s third highest record goalscorer controls a match from the centre of the park, with the player demonstrating an unnerving ability to resort to the ‘Hollywood Ball’ when in possession. It is an observation that is all-the-more frustrating for Ander Herrera’s frequent exclusion this season.
Van Persie, meanwhile, is in the midst of a 18-month-long slump. There was a short period over Christmas, a mini burst if you will, when the Dutchman scored five in four games. There have been just two goals in the past nine matches; one of those a penalty.
Indeed, the Dutchman’s performance in south Wales ranks among his least effective for the club. Of Van Persie’s seven attempts at goal only one hit the target, while the striker touched the ball on just 23 further occasions. The evidence suggests a permanent decline even if Van Persie recovers quickly from an ankle injury suffered at the Liberty Stadium.
Then there is Falcao. The Colombian remains a striker of rare pedigree, but one who is fundamentally struggling to recover from a second knee injury of the most devastating kind. Few begrudge the Colombian a little time in a season that has itself been disrupted by less serious injury, but eight months into a year-long loan at the club there is scant evidence that Falcao is the player of lore.
It is not even as if the 29-year-old’s goals this season – all four of them – have come against top class opposition either: Falcao scored against Everton, Aston Villa, Stoke City and Leicester City. His omission from Saturday’s line-up may well be the precursor to more frequent exclusion as the season winds down. The performances hardly merite special treatment. And whatever agent Jorge Mendes’ proclamation to the contrary, few of Europe’s top clubs will be prepared to pay the €55 million fee Monaco is seeking for the forward next summer.
Little wonder United ranks just fourth in the Premier League for goals scored this season despite the lavish expenditure on a clutch of strikers. It is, after all, some 12 goals behind rivals Chelsea and Manchester City. These are striking numbers.
Indeed, United’s failure at Swansea City on Saturday can be attributed, in part at least, to the profligacy of the team’s forward line. Van Gaal was moved to declare United unlucky in defeat, with the Reds securing a healthy proportion of possession, while the team created 18 chances. Perhaps the key statistic is this however: the visitors managed just three shots on target. It is the story of the season rather than a one-off observation. United ranks just eighth in the Premier League for shots-per-game and seventh for shots-on-target.
Yet, with a nod to those who have an eye for defending United’s errant forwards, Van Gaal’s team ranks just eighth in key-passes-per game, ninth in dribbles-per-game and 16th in fouls-against-per-game. If the forward line is under-performing then there is little attacking foundation elsewhere in the team. Angel di Maria suffered yet another anonymous game at the Liberty Stadium, while fellow creative talents Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj started the game on the bench.
Yet, while United enjoyed a positive spell for 30 minutes after the break, and possession translated into chances created, none were taken. And when it came to the crux, with the Reds chasing an equaliser deep into the game, Van Gaal’s men resorted to agricultural tactics rather than trusting that creative talent might fashion a chance. The Reds launched 50 long passes forward against Swansea – 12 of them coming after Bafétimbi Gomis scored Swansea’s second. It was truly desperate stuff.
Crucially, in the short-term there is little sign that either Falcao or Van Persie will hit a run of form. If may well cost United a place in the Champions League next season. Neither is likely to benefit if United’s Dutch manager continues to rely on the long ball.
Over the longer piece few will brook argument with the observation that Van Gaal should enter the market for one, if not more, new strikers next summer.
That one second that changes everything. The sudden rush of ecstasy. The complete loss of inhibition. The wild celebrations. There is no better feeling than a stoppage time goal.
The Art of Football’s crafted designs emulate the beauty of those moments never forgotten, capturing the energy, passion and euphoria that erupts from that one magical goal. Limited in number, each design, like any good piece of art, is completely original.
Rant has two T-Shirts to give away in this week’s competition. First prize is “All Hail the King” – a moment of Eric Cantona beauty. Second prize is “Winning in Style” – Wayne Rooney’s last minute overhead against Manchester City.
To win tell us about your favourite Manchester United moment. Comment below or on Twitter (@unitedrant #rantcast) to enter. The best answer, as chosen by Rant Cast presenters Ed & Paul, gets the Cantona T. Competition closes Saturday 22 November, 12 noon.
The Art of Football Manchester United collection can be found here.
Manchester United’s 5-3 loss to Leicester City on Sunday saw Wayne Rooney deployed at the tip of a midfield diamond. Rooney’s ineptitude at ‘number 10’ has often been noted on these pages and suspicion is that Juan Mata or even the callow Adnan Januzaj would have done a far better job as United’s chief creator.
At the very least, Mata would have kept possession better than the former Evertonian and, perhaps, would have prevented some of Leicester’s frequent counter-attacks as a result. After all, Rooney’s pass completion rate of 83 per cent is 10 percentage points lower than the Spaniard’s typical number. Moreover, Rooney simply does not have the first touch to navigate tight quarters and 57.9 per cent of his passes this season have been backwards as a result.
The argument that Van Gaal is “indulging” his captain holds little sway though – the Dutchman has a long history of dropping the seemingly undroppable. Instead, a careful study of Van Gaal’s tactics reveals a genuine reason for deploying Rooney in the hole.
Ideally, United’s midfield might include a holder, runner and a creator. Danny Blind, Ander Herrera and Angel di Maria, respectively, fulfilled these roles against Leicester at the weekend. United’s diamond leaves a spare man and Rooney can play each of these roles effectively, though perhaps not expertly. Mata, on the other hand, can only really act as the creator – as the Spaniard’s muted substitute appearance in a deeper role demonstrated.
Rooney’s well-roundedness might well appeal to Van Gaal’s Dutch sensibilities, although the veteran is hardly a sentimental man. The Dutchman’s midfield diamond, or the 3-4-1-2 deployed earlier this season for that matter, were each born of a harsh reality. It was easier to acquire an upgrade on Danny Welbeck than it is to completely restock United’s wingers. Paying £60 million for di Maria makes much sense given that the Argentine’s excellence in a midfield diamond dates back to his days at Benfica.
The former Real Madrid player has also frequently ventured out to the left flank in his early appearances for United to provide a genuine presence out wide. For example, di Maria whipped in several beautiful crosses during his short tenure at United and, the thinking goes, Rooney is better equipped than Mata to take advantage. Herrera, meanwhile, can and does make late runs but he has not yet demonstrated aerial presence on par with the Englishman.
It comes with the role of creator, of course, but the Argentine has also been rather wasteful with the ball. United’s number 10, therefore, has to mop up plenty of loose balls – a task Mata simply cannot do given his lack of brawn or weaknesses off-the-ball. Essentially, Rooney has become the new Ji-Sung Park in Van Gaal’s system – albeit one that packs more of a punch.
A critical issue, though, is Rooney’s positioning. Supporters at the Leicester game often witnessed Rooney standing dumb in the middle during the offensive phase, offering little and often blocking the path to di Maria. Suspicion is that Rooney is simply not tactically sophisticated enough to comprehend United’s nuanced tactics. Training ground drills should take care of this, although Van Gaal has been in charge for three months now.
Another issue is Rooney’s lack of first touch. Rooney often drifts deep in search of space to mask his lack of technique. With three central midfielders, such movement only adds to the congestion in the centre of the park. It also leaves Robin van Persie and Falcao far too isolated in a system that was meant to use Rooney as its main creator. With nobody in the hole di Maria was often forced to cross from deep.
In advanced positions Rooney often pings the ball straight back – again very reminiscent of Park. Two creative midfielders in di Maria and Herrera ensure that this isn’t a major problem and, as long as Rooney remains positionally disciplined, creativity should not be an issue. Even if Rooney resorts to his typical, tactically inept ways, di Maria and Herrera have the quality to dribble their way into the final third.
As usual with Rooney, everything depends on other players and the argument for more specialist players makes much sense. There is simply no denying that Mata is the better creator. Indeed, with four centrally positioned midfielders, ball retention eliminates the need for Rooney at all.
Yet, Rooney’s deployment in the hole hints at a bigger issue – one that van Gaal seems to be acutely aware of: defence. Having failed to recruit a world-class centre back Tyler Blackett and Johnny Evans have been cruelly exposed this season. At King Power Stadium, Marcos Rojo was noticeably more reserved than Rafael da Silva on the right. For the first time in van Gaal’s Old Trafford tenure, David de Gea consistently cleared long. Evidently, van Gaal has lost confidence in United’s ability to play out from back. Rooney’s aerial presence then becomes a real asset.
Blind’s lack of pace is another factor – the former Ajax Player of Year simply cannot be counted on to stop quick breaks. Until United’s defence can confidently maintain possession, the side will be forced long. Until the defence can be trusted, Rooney must play.
It is worth noting that Luke Shaw has not yet played for the Reds. Phil Jones, arguably United’s best central defender, will also soon be back from injury. Once the first choice back four is up and running Mata is likely to come back into contention – and Rooney’s place may be at more risk than many believe. In there interim the Spaniard is advised to use his head and remain patient.
Strange times at Manchester United. If the alarm hadn’t already been sounded it surely rings loud now after chaos reigned at the King Power Stadium on Sunday. Tumult and then some with Leicester City, lowly newly promoted Leicester at that, inflicting United’s third defeat of what increasingly looks like a long season to come. Stir? Louis van Gaal was enraged.
There was no little incredulity at Old Trafford as the east midlanders smashed five past Van Gaal’s expensively assembled team. With the defeat comes disbelief, but not really that one of the league’s lesser teams secured victory. This has happen too often for surprise. Nor even that United shipped so many, with a defence broken asunder in recent times. But more specifically that the Reds should be so utterly bereft of leadership when it was needed most.
This, after all, is the club of Duncan Edwards, Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce and Roy Keane. Leaders all. Of different types too: those natural in command, and others who set the tone to follow. United is seemingly lacking both.
On Sunday, when Van Gaal so desperately needed his senior players to offer an example, to organise, to translate training pitch strategy into match day execution, none came forward. More broadly, when a leader of the intelligent, progressive kind is so badly required at Old Trafford nobody has emerged from the class of 2014.
In both respects United should be served by club captain Wayne Rooney. The talisman on-the-pitch; the marketing symbol off it. The man awarded the club captaincy by Van Gaal, a huge new contract by the executive, and proffered “special privileges” all in the same arc.
Yet, on Saturday, United’s leader became the captain to demand his crew paddles faster as the bow sinks below the waves. In one notable incident Rooney screamed at his team-mates, the callow Tyler Blackett included, moments after the Scouser gifted Leicester possession and with it a third goal. This is rotten leadership fast sinking into the class of Dickens scoundrel.
On the pitch Rooney completed 81 per cent of his passes; fewer still in the final third – this from the man who, at number 10, was deployed by Van Gaal as United’s creative fulcrum. At least the captain was at least partly contrite in admitting that “we should have kept the ball better.”
Prone to the Hollywood ball, Rooney failed with each of his long forward passes and, in attacking zones, Rooney managed just one shot – off target, of course. True, Rooney completed an assist for Angel Di Maria’s goal, but the pass was so underweighted that the Argentinian was forced into a sublime finish simply to complete United’s move.
Defensively Rooney made two tackles, but no blocks, interceptions or clearances. It was a performance of, sadly, common mediocrity and very little intelligence.
This is a strange kind of leadership – one his team-mates seem reluctant to follow. Then, on current evidence, Rooney might not convince his shadow to follow him into the sunset. This from the man who has twice sought refuge in the arms of United’s bitterest rivals; once more into the breach dear friends – ‘unless a better offer comes my way’.
Rooney wasn’t the only failure on Saturday, although the captain’s rotten form is the antithesis of inspiration. At the back Rafael da Silva and Marcos Rojo were repeatedly caught out of position, while Jonny Evans and his replacement Chris Smalling enjoyed error-ridden afternoons. Even Blackett, who had looked composed for an hour, suffered in the chaos of United’s defensive disintegration.
There should be little surprise in United’s defensive malaise. Where the club lost more than 1200 appearances of experience in Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić and Patrice Evra, the trio was replaced with two, expensive, and adolescent left-backs: Rojo and Luke Shaw.
Meanwhile, Smalling, Evans and the Phil Jones were groomed to be the next generation of great United central defenders. Perpetual injury has dogged each, to say little of the technical limitations now inherent. None of this, however, is a surprise and United’s failure to acquire an experienced central defender in the summer appears more like negligence with each passing game.
In midfield Di Maria’s brilliance was not matched by Ander Herrera or Daley Blind, who were too often over-run by Leicester’s all-action engine room. Rooney did little to halt the flow in his deeper role, nor Juan Mata the second half substitute thrust into an unfamiliar position in central midfield.
With it Van Gaal had little choice but to react furiously after a performance as inept as any last season.
“You never expect that when you’re 3-1 ahead and you are two goals ahead for the second time,” said the Dutchman.
“You have to kill the game and keep possession but we could not do that. We gave it away with penalties, and you cannot win a game when you do that. I think we created a lot of chances and we made superb goals. But a game lasts 90 minutes and you have to do that for 90 minutes, not 60 minutes.”
Rooney echoed his manager in declaring the performance not “good enough as a team.” He could say little else except, perhaps, to include greater self-analysis in the critique.
The seemingly untouchable Scouser is set to continue in the United side even if there is little clear evidence he is the best player in any position. Special privileges indeed. Although the former Evertonian may no longer be first choice striker, with Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao starting on Sunday.
“I was not so satisfied with Rooney as a striker,” Van Gaal said. “That is why I changed. Rooney can play in more positions, he’s a multi-functional player and I have tried him in a striker’s position. He has played well, but not spectacular. Falcao is a striker and I think he can do it better.”
Whether Rooney deserves the role at ‘number 10’ is moot, although Mata’s greater use of the ball, outstanding control and understanding of tempo are surely more important qualities in the position. Or, to put that another way, a player of Rooney’s profligacy in possession, leaden first touch and dependency on overhit passes might not normally be considered a team’s principle creator.
Wedded to Rooney in one way or another Van Gaal remains – a political decision that may yet come to haunt the Dutchman. It certainly did little good on Saturday. Leadership this was not as chaos broke forth.
Wayne Rooney has so often been the subject of debate. England’s best hope and bête noire, sometimes in equal measure, in the decade since the Scouser’s international début in February 2003. Rooney’s electric performances in the following summer’s European Championships earned a £30 million move to Manchester United – the start of a period that set Rooney in motion towards global stardom. It is a promise only partially fulfilled.
In Germany two years later drama ensued, with Rooney breaking a bone in his foot just weeks before the tournament began. Rushed back into the squad amid national concern, the forward announced his return with the now immortal boast: “the big man is back in town.” He was – only to be sent off in England’s quarter-final defeat to Portugal for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho’s groin.
Eight years later and Rooney is yet to register a World Cup goal. In truth he didn’t come close against Italy in Manaus on Saturday night. It was a game that may just prove to be as much of a defining point in Rooney’s career as that 2004 Euro tournament a decade ago. The point at which Rooney’s star began to fade in earnest.
Roy Hodgson’s decision to switch Rooney to England’s left in a 4-2-3-1 formation said much: the United forward is no longer considered good enough to lead England’s line. Nor, it seems, to play ‘in the hole’ at number 10. Instead, shunted out to the wing – a position Rooney detests – the United player was subjugated to a supporting role as Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge starred.
So long the great white hope, Rooney underwhelmed, to leave Hodgson with a genuine dilemma: if Rooney is fit only for England’s wing, there may well be better options out wide too. Rooney’s place is no longer guaranteed.
After all, while Rooney was rarely influential as an attacking threat – bar a fine assist for Sturridge’s equaliser – the United man was often caught out of position defensively, drifting inside, and exposing England’s left flank. It was an exercise in tactical indiscipline that many coaches would struggle to forgive.
In truth, of course, Rooney is judged to different standards than his team-mates. The criticism leveled in the wake of England’s 2-1 defeat to Italy comes in the context of a game where few of the English team genuinely impressed, bar Sterling and Sturridge. Rooney was certainly no worse than any other England player in aggregate.
Yet, England’s talisman has so often failed to reach that next level either; to rise above the mediocre and deliver more. There are so many examples of an outstanding player dragging an average team to great feats. Just not Rooney.
Rooney has suffered for, and not lived up to, those great expectations. At 18 hopes were hugely inflated that the Liverpool-born forward would join the game’s élite. He has achieved much, and could yet break club and international goalscoring records, but it is a data point that fails to tell the whole story. It is a career that has come to feel anti-climatic.
And yet there is a paradox. Despite performances for club and country over the past three seasons that have rarely excelled, or even excited, the Scouser still puts up the numbers. There were 19 goals and 15 assists in all competitions last season – 16 and 13, respectively, the campaign before. He scored 34 in one season just four years ago.
Yet, there are also so few games that stand out in recent seasons; no dominant performances, little of the explosive excitement that marked the teenager out for greatness. It will, one now presumes, never return.
The forward may have run further during Saturday’s game than any other England player – a story often repeated last season – but supporters have long suspected that Rooney’s perpetual perspiration has permanently replaced the quality that has been eroded from his game.
Instead it was Sturridge and Sterling that excelled in Rooney’s two preferred positions. Sturridge led the line well, scoring a fine equaliser, while Sterling was a dynamic revelation behind his team mate. The Liverpool teenager may not have taken a traditional number 10 role – he didn’t dictate England’s play or tempo – but there is little doubt a new international star was born.
Rooney, meanwhile, simply chose to ignore his great failing – the indiscipline that leaves his manager wondering whether the Scouser is a greater defensive liability than he is an attacking asset.
“If you look at the way we play, it’s not playing out and out on the left wing,” said the 28-year-old. “You’re playing more inside, you’re coming inside off the line. It’s not really playing too much on the left.”
Except, of course, he should have been on the left, especially when Leighton Baines was repeatedly left exposed to Italy’s marauding winger, Antonio Candreva. In deploying just two central midfielders against Italy’s triumvirate Hodgson could ill-afford for Steven Gerrard or Jordan Henderson to drift out of position to cover Rooney’s absence either.
Then, late in the game, with Rooney finally pushed up front, the 28-year old blew a huge chance to bring England back into the tie. It was the kind of opportunity players of the highest caliber take in the biggest games. “What a chance,” Hodgson was seen to mutter on the bench. That it was.
It was left to Paul Scholes to rally in Rooney’s defence. This from the man who, in the build up to the World Cup, had openly questioned whether the Scouser’s best days are now behind him. Who needs friends, eh?
“The best position for Wayne is centre-forward,” said Scholes on Sunday. “If you think about the contenders at the World Cup and goalscorers – Holland play Robin van Persie in his best position. Brazil play Neymar where he wants to play, Argentina with Messi, Portugal with Ronaldo.
“He’s England’s best goalscorer but he was played on the left, played on the right, then in the centre. Where’s the confidence in Wayne to say: ‘You’re our main player. You’re our centre-forward.’”
Yet, the result and performance leaves Hodgson with a genuine choice – to deploy Rooney once more in a wide role, and accept that the player’s indiscipline could well cost England a crucial goal against Uruguay, or to shift one of his two best players against Italy away from the roles in which they starred.
It is, of course, no choice at all.
Come August Louis van Gaal will face a similar dilemma at United. It will surprise many if the Dutchman shirks the big decision. After all, Rooney is no longer United’s best number nine. That is to say little of the excellent relationship enjoyed between Robin van Persie and his international coach.
Meanwhile, in Juan Mata and Shinji Kagawa United possesses two classic ‘number 10s’, albeit of highly contrasting styles. Each will better contribute to United’s balance than Rooney.
It is an observation that leaves Rooney’s career at a crossroads. Revered for his goalscoring exploits, while reviled for his dalliance with both Manchester City and Chelsea. Rooney is man that remains the talk of the nation. Rarer, it seems, for the right reasons.
United’s bean counters are locked in a dilemma too having pressed home David Moyes’ desire to lock Rooney down to a lengthy and expensive new five-year contract. One presumes van Gaal will countenance no interference from above, but with the ink barely dry, United’s board is in danger of looking embarrassingly profligate.
Back on the pitch Rooney is no longer the big man. The Englishman may have to accept that his options have narrowed. Probably at both club and international level.
Paul Scholes’ recent claim that Wayne Rooney has “all the ability to take over my old position at Manchester United” has reopened the door for a long-thought-buried conversation. Those supporting Scholes do so reasoning that Rooney can hit sweeping passes, just like the retired United midfielder, and that the 28-year-old’s well-roundedness will shine in deeper areas. The opposition has claimed that Rooney simply does not have the technique required to star in a modern midfield.
Data Rant compares Rooney to top Premier League strikers and midfielders to see where the England international might feel more at home. As usual, normal assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict. Players have been judged on following:
Consistency in goal scoring
Ability to get into the box
Dribbling past markers
The number of assists made by most creative teammate has been included to reflect the strength of a player’s side. The figure has been adjusted so that players playing for relatively weaker sides can be compared fairly to players at leading clubs, such as Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero.
The top 10 forwards in the league have been considered. That is: Aguero, Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Olivier Giroud, Edin Dzeko, Wilfried Bony, Jay Rodriguez, Romelu Lukaku, Loic Remy, Rickie Lambert and, of course, Rooney.
In Figure 1, below, it is awkward to summarise from the trend line, but a pattern can be quickly recognised – data points are diverging with Suarez the outlier. The vertical axis marks the number of goals scored, with more rounded players towards the right of the graph (the horizontal axis measuring a sum of attacking attributes: shots, take ons, successful headers, pass accuracy, chances created, assists.
The Uruguayan striker scored 31 goals and assisted 12 times last season and his position in the graph reflects his excellent all-round campaign.
In Figure 2, below, Rooney is added to the mix. The new trend line is not a perfect fit, but Rooney is very close to it. The model suggests that Rooney should have scored 19 Premier League goals – the United forward scored 17. Notice that Rooney, along with a few others, lies away from the cluster of players to his left. We’ll get this this momentarily.
In Figure 3, four players stand out from the model; Sturridge, Aguero, Remy and Rooney. If it wasn’t for these four, the trend line would perfectly connect the group.
Given his all round performance, Sturridge significantly outperformed the model’s expectation in his scoring feats. Rooney, Remy and Aguero all scored a decent amount of goals in the 2013/14 season, but their creative abilities push them towards the right of the chart. The data therefore confirms Rooney’s completeness as a player.
We now compare the 11 forwards to attacking midfielders: Yaya Toure, Steven Gerrard, Aaron Ramsey, Raheem Sterling and Oscar. They are top five central players by goals scored and have been judged on the same criteria as the strikers.
As in the first graph the model doesn’t produce an easy trend line. There are two ways of interpreting data here.
Two almost parallel lines have been drawn, below, to reference two groups in our model. The blue line passes through our group of midfield players and Aguero, who is comfortable playing deeper. The black line hits many of forwards and Toure. Toure scored 20 Premier League goals and it would shock few if the Ivorian is categorized a ‘striker’ in this model. The ‘parallel lines’ model implies that attacking midfielders are simply strikers with more tools to utilise. However, Rooney lies awkwardly in the middle – close to both lines but not quite enough to belonging to either group.
Suarez, below, is plotted far away from the rest, but the Liverpool striker had such an excellent season that it would have been more surprising had there been a player close to him.
The black line connects strikers and Toure closely, while the blue line does a very good job of attaching attacking midfielders. The ‘scissors model’ suggests that attacking midfielders can just as well labeled as a forward – not that far-fetched considering that Scholes himself had been a deep lying forward before moving deeper as he matured. It is hard to argue that Rooney will make such transition, though – even in this model Rooney sits in the middle of two clusters.
It is perhaps too early to predict Rooney’s positional future as Louis van Gaal might dictate that Rooney’s future lies elsewhere in the country or even the continent. People for and against deploying Rooney as central midfielder all make very good points. Unfortunately, data supports both and neither at the same time.
Addendum – Robin van Persie
David de Gea is the only player who has ended United’s 2013/14 campaign with his reputation intact. The performance of Robin van Persie was particularly disappointing, whose output in front of goal went from 26 to 12 in the league. The Dutch striker suffered significant injury problems under Moyes, but his relationship with van Gaal should cure most of these ailments. Will the new United manager get van Persie firing on the pitch as well?
Compared to 12/13, van Persie created less chances and dribbled more last season, suggesting that the Dutchman was rather isolated. The fact that the former Arsenal captain did less defensively in his second season with United solidifies this argument.
The graphics, below, detail the areas in which van Persie made key passes over the past two season. The 12/13 map can easily be confused to that of a playmaker, while the more recent view shows someone who has been crowded out of attacking midfield zones. Indeed, during the season, van Persie complained of a player who “sometimes [occupied] the spaces I want to play in.”
United’s lack of form could have adversely influenced van Persie, but it is Rooney who likely occupied van Persie’s spaces. Rooney attempted almost twice as many take ons as the season before. By having the ball longer, the English striker would have forced van Persie to stay further forward.
We revisit the recent Data Rant model above. Rooney of 12/13 and 13/14 and van Persie or 12/13 and 13/14 are considered in addition to top ten Premier League strikers and top five central midfielders.
van Persie has gone from being a complete forward to a solid striker. Rooney, in fact, has regressed slightly in his all-round performance, although his scoring record has improved – Rooney’s best role remains unclear. In Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season, Rooney clearly played as a conventional attacking midfielder and van Persie had an excellent season. Maybe having Rooney in the engine room could work.
Paul Scholes caused much ruckus this week by claiming that “Wayne [Rooney’s peak] could have been … when he was 26.” Sir Alex Ferguson’s vehement efforts to dispatch Rooney also hints at something more than simply a personality clash. After all, on the pitch, the 28-year-old has been mediocre for three seasons now. The new four-year contract gifted to Rooney may prove to be the worst legacy of David Moyes’ era at Manchester United.
Louis van Gaal’s opinion on Rooney will certainly be interesting. The English forward’s versatility might appeal to van Gaal, but the Dutchman has surely spent too much time at Ajax and Barcelona to look past Rooney’s, sometimes horrifying, first touch. The incoming United manager could very well have instructed Ed Woodward to find a new home for the Scouser already.
For United, transferring Rooney to a continental club would be ideal, but not only does his huge wage offer a stumbling block, many top European clubs do not need the forward or have a better version already. Thomas Muller and Angel di Maria are just two examples.
England beckons, then, and Chelsea is the only realistic destination for the forward. Only Eden Hazard succeeded in scoring more than 10 goals in 2013/14 for Chelsea so there is a clear need for a number nine at Stamford Bridge. José Mourinho has long been an admirer of Rooney and the English striker would offer dependable firepower to Chelsea’s frontline. It is a marriage that suits all parties.
United’s most iconic player leaving for a rival could be a public relations nightmare, of course, and the Mourinho system is tailor-made for Rooney, which may allow the Englishman to flourish. Yet, if Rooney’s physical decline continues, the Reds will have the last laugh.
The London side was just as defensive as United last season, but managed to score seven more goals and concede 16 less across the campaign – this was achieved with the same 53 per cent average possession. The mobility and technical approach offered by Hazard and Willian, however, allowed the Blues to dribble past opponents where United did not. A classy striker will make the system tick.
The data shows that Willian and Samuel Eto’o bear resemblance to Rooney and the Englishman would be a great replacement for the departing Cameroonian. Rooney’s scoring record last season was better last season than any Chelsea strikers.
Tactically Rooney should fit with Mourinho’s system. Juan Mata was ostracized at Stanford Bridge for doing little of the dirty work and Hazard was publicly chastised by Mourinho for the same reason. Considering that Rooney is diligent to the point of indiscipline there is every reason for the Portuguese to chase the wayward English striker.
Deducing from the statistics of Chelsea’s forwards, Rooney could be expected to score 10 league goals if he moved to London. Apart from penalties, Rooney has largely monopolised set pieces at United – a luxury he will not enjoy at Chelsea – and his figures might drop even further as a result. Oscar and Hazard run the midfield so Rooney would be on the pitch to finish alone.
There are plenty of other striking options for Chelsea, with the London club closing in on Diego Costa, who is better finisher and might even cost less. Indeed, Rooney was probably earmarked for a defensive forward role last summer, such as that taken by Ji-Sung Park, which would have diminished Rooney’s output further.
Of course, statistics are only a guide, but the analysis suggests that Rooney might fall further from his peak in the coming years. If United took a Machiavellian view, the damage inflicted on Chelsea by Rooney declining rapidly at Stamford Bridge, far outweighs any chance of the English forward recovering the form of yesteryear.
The really frightening thing for United fans is that this analysis assumes Rooney will stay in rude health next season. He rarely has in the past.