The narrative of Wayne Rooney’s career has always been complex. It had to be for the leading English talent in a generation. From boy-wonder to Manchester United’s elder statesman; transfer rebel to declining force. Rooney has rarely suffered for a shortage of unsolicited analysis. And yet, after 14 years at the top, here is he, set to start the Manchester derby on Sunday as United’s captain. Rooney’s talent may be on the wane, but his presence endures.
It’s the opening day of the 2015/2016 season. Manchester United faces a potentially tricky opener against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford. Wayne Rooney, restored to a role at number nine, is in acres of space in the Spurs area. The United skipper takes a touch and is ready to pull the trigger…
Louis van Gaal’s side is currently top of the Premier League table, and finally in the points in the Champions League. Yet if you believe much of the written press and watching public, this Manchester United side is not very good. It’s a confusing paradigm for the watching journalists as they report on the country’s form team. The Red Devils edged past Wolfsburg on Wednesday night, beating the Germans 2-1 despite a poor start and nervous finish. The highlight of the night was Juan Mata’s performance, whose irresistible play resembled that of his Chelsea days, when the Spaniard was the most feared attacking midfielder in the league.
Mata has learned to play the Van Gaal way, often having to sacrifice flair for function. Under David Moyes, the diminutive Spaniard was lost in a system which wreaked of inadequacy; a toxic mess of Evertonian steel mixed with tactical ineptitude. Van Gaal demands an exceptional work rate from his players, and if you were to believe Jose Mourinho’s judgement on application, Mata would be the first one out the Old Trafford door.
However, the player has made the right side attacking berth his own, popping up in a number of positions as he looks to move inside and participate. His work rate is outstanding too; only Morgan Schneiderlin covered more ground against Wolfsburg.
Mata’s display against Wolfsburg demonstrated just how much potential he has in a United shirt. He is a natural number 10, but has been overlooked by three successive coaches for the central role. The question for Van Gaal now is whether to ‘promote’ Mata into that role, leveraging the player’s stellar form, or stick with what he knows.
Mata has scored three goals and made three assists from his seven league matches this season and is in prime form to play behind Anthony Martial as United’s trequartista. But if this is the case, the question remains of what to do with Wayne Rooney.
The focus of attention in England is always on Rooney, with the extra weight of being Van Gaal’s captain also on his shoulders. Handling pressure is the not the issue for the skipper; the quality of his game, however, is not currently at its highest.
Rooney shifted from a role as United’s number nine to 10 after Martial’s purchase, with many supporters happier that the ‘boy wonder’ was moved to a deeper role. It is, however, a myth that Rooney is a modern number 10.
In the same way that Peter Crouch might be considered an old school striker, Rooney is a throwback to a deep-lying attacker. He neither threads a through pass or ghosts past opponents — as all trequaristas are expected to do. Rooney’s pace is no longer a relevant part of his arsenal, and it is a cold fact that he doesn’t score many goals.
It begs the question of what exactly Rooney does? In a year of transition, Rooney gave Van Gaal authority in the dressing room in a way Moyes never had. Rooney leads the Dutchman’s incarnation of United. He’s the archetypal ‘Prince of Wales, not the King of the Castle’, but is certainly not a commoner in the hierarchy of the club.
Rooney’s elevated club status has given Van Gaal a focal point within his squad that many believed Robin van Persie would provide. But Van Persie’s fall from grace gave the manager only one choice, and he gambled on the White Pele as his central protagonist.
That was fine for the first 12 months under the Van Gaal regime, but the club and side has evolved. There is, for example, Chris Smalling’s rebirth and Ashley Young’s reintegration into the squad as an important player. The acquisitions of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin have addressed the central midfield disease Rooney was asked to cure last term.
This evolution has made Rooney less relevant; Mata’s form and Martial’s explosive start to life at United dictate that Van Gaal should be brave and drop his captain. Yet, the manager’s words after United’s victory over Wolfsburg point towards Wayne staying in the team, unduly untouchable. Worse still, Van Gaal refused to give Mata the plaudits he deserved after a magnificent night.
“I don’t talk about individual performances, but I have seen Mata playing better than he did against Wolfsburg,” said Van Gaal. “I can say as a manager that he played very well and agree with you, but I don’t agree with you.”
It is a convoluted statement, considering Mata’s influence guaranteed United the points, but Van Gaal’s words appear to solidify Rooney’s role, by dodging the question of whether Mata should be moved to a role behind the striker.
Rooney has one goal in six Premier League games, and if this is the player’s ratio over the course of the season, he will do well to break double figures. This would be in line with the player’s grand contribution of 12 league goals last season, but if Rooney is to be Van Gaal’s main attacker – pulling the strings – then United need much much more.
Mata is ready for an extended run in a more central role, freeing up space for Young, who — despite being one of the Reds’ best players in the opening weeks of the campaign — has been forced to watch from the sidelines as the disappointing Memphis Depay finds his feet.
Mata would help Memphis and Young as they provide the width, and with Martial’s obvious pace, the Spaniard could practice the art of the through ball to his heart’s content.
The Rooney question has become a rhetorical one in 2015, but even the Englishman’s most fervent supporters admit he is not the force he once was. Meanwhile, Mata’s career has been on hold since Mourinho dumped him in favour of Oscar. It’s easy to forget the midfielder was one of the brightest talents in the world just a few years ago.
As Rooney enters his 30th year in October, Mata is in his prime, aged 27. Van Gaal may feel that sacrificing his captain is a sign of weakness, both to the squad and the British press, but the Merseysider’s displays have now sunk to such a low level, the coach must at least try to give a genuine creative talent a chance.
“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.
What, exactly, does Louis van Gaal see in Rooney?
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.
What stir is this; what tumult’s in the heavens?
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.