Tag Wayne Rooney

Tag Wayne Rooney

England faces Hodgson’s choice over Rooney role

June 15, 2014 Tags: , International, Opinion 9 comments
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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.

Data Rant: Rooney in midfield

June 3, 2014 Tags: , Data 18 comments
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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:

  1. Consistency in goal scoring
  2. Ability to get into the box
  3. Dribbling past markers
  4. Aerial presence
  5. Passing
  6. Incisiveness

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.

Figure-1 Top Premier League Strikers

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.

Figure-2 Top Premier League Strikers

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.

Figure-3 The Four

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.

Figure-4 Forwards + Attacking Midfielders

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.

Figure-5 Forwards + Attacking Midfielders

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.

Figure-6 Forwards + Attacking Midfielders

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?

Robin van Persie

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.”

2012/13
Robin van Persie

2013/14
Robin van Persie
(Source: Squawka)

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.

Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie

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.

Data Rant: Rooney’s sale makes sense

May 31, 2014 Tags: , , Data 34 comments
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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.

table-1 - attacking attributes/goals scored

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.

Figure-1 - attacking attributes / goals scored

 

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.

The contract can wait: Rooney should be moved to midfield

February 16, 2014 Tags: , Opinion 21 comments
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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.

Rooney manoeuvres club into position … again

January 25, 2014 Tags: Opinion 41 comments
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You have to hand it to Wayne Rooney: he has been phenomenally successful at squeezing money out of Manchester United since joining the club in 2004. Or perhaps more accurately, it is his management team of Paul Stretford and company at Triple S Sports, which has manipulated the club in negotiations twice over the past four seasons. Each time, it seems, Stretford and his client have walked away with millions.

In October 2010 Rooney announced that he was unwilling to sign a new contract, citing United’s lack of “ambition,” while attempting to force through a transfer to Manchester City. More than three years hence, following another summer of discontent where Chelsea waited with arms gratefully open, the striker is primed for another bumper pay rise at Old Trafford. And United will most certainly capitulate to his demands once again with a £15 million-a-season five-year contract.

In this it is not just Rooney’s disloyalty that grates. After all, it has long become clear that football is just a business to the street player who used to love the game above all. That is long gone to a man who has amassed a £45 million fortune during his time in Manchester.

Nor even that Rooney has attempted to engineer moves to two of United’s direct rivals, although it simply beggars belief that City was his destination of choice during that October revolution.

No, the real anger among so many United supporters is that Rooney has cynically manipulated the club to his own ends; raising his stock far above performances on the pitch have often merited, while dividing supporters’ loyalty. The essential cognitive dissonance of supporting United’s players on the pitch, contrasted against that feeling of antipathy for what the star striker now stands for.

Back in October 2010 the club caved, offering Rooney a massive new contract amid protest on the terraces and Sir Alex Ferguson’s tubthumping about cows in far off fields. With the Scot into the winter of his managerial career there was seemingly little stomach to call Rooney’s bluff. The player lost a public relations war, but won the contract game.

It was almost six months before the Scouser attempted to correct the fallout from blackmailing United, although in truth Rooney’s team erred only in misjudging supporters’ reaction. They played the club to a tee.

“I understand I made a mistake. When I look at it now how wrong was I?” said Rooney the following April in a classic non-apology apology.

“I admitted that and I apologised for that and I have wanted to try and prove myself again to the Manchester United fans. I feel I am doing that now. I am 100 per cent committed to this club. It was a long time ago now and hopefully now I am helping this team be successful.”

Except, of course, Rooney was never truly committed to the club. At least not in the manner of his peers: Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. Nor, it is fair to muse, did United supporters ever really expect him to be. He was once a blue, but so willingly became a Red back in 2004. Nor, it must also be said, did this observation stop Rooney’s team from attempting to pull the wool over fans’ eyes.

“I want to still be playing here in the next 10 years,” Rooney told Sky Sports on a book tour the following year.

“You look at Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, how successful they have been. They are an example to us all. That is the idea, that is the plan, and hopefully that will be the case. I love playing for Manchester United and as long as I am wanted to play for this football club I will be here for a long time.”

So much to shill, so little time in which to do it.

But Stretford’s game of misinformation has been frequently played. The player’s desperate back-channel negotiation last summer brought two bids from Chelsea, with the west Londoners convinced – much as City had been three years previously – that Rooney could force through a transfer. Ed Woodward’s intransigence was the executive’s only achievement last summer.

Yet, Rooney’s team is up to the old tricks once again, engineering not only a route south should contract negotiations prove unfruitful this winter, but the appearance of an auction for the player’s services.

Indeed, recent stories of Real Madrid’s renewed interest in the 28-year-old forward can be traced back to Stretford’s team. After all, the Spanish giants have long since given up on a player who has failed to live with the world’s elite. How shortsighted the once-held belief that Rooney belonged in a triumvirate along with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Certainly performances on the pitch have not always justified Rooney’s untouchable status at Old Trafford, leaving Ferguson to omit the Scouser from his side altogether at times last season.

True, in a campaign of alarming mediocrity from David Moyes’ side this year Rooney has worked harder than almost any. It is, though, a comparison from a very low base and one that Moyes has stoked to his own ends. Repairing Rooney’s relationship with the club in the short-term was seen as essential when the Scot took on the job last June.

But gone is the burst of speed that once marked the teenager out as a talent of rare breed; long forgotten the ability to take on an opponent at will. Rooney still puts up decent numbers, but he will never again excite in the manner that brought fans to their feet a decade ago, and journalists predicting future greatness. He may well become United’s highest ever goalscorer, but something has still been left of the table.

Physical decline is evident, while Rooney’s 589 games for clubs and country since bursting onto the scene as a 16-year-old, together with a less-than-professional lifestyle, may take their toll on the player. That bombastic style has already led to multiple impact injuries over the seasons and burnout is surely inevitable.

For the moment there is a symbiotic need though. United for class in an otherwise threadbare squad; Rooney for money and status. Three years hence, with Rooney barreling into his 30s, the five-year deal on offer may well seem excessive.

Yet, Moyes’ strategy of massaging Rooney’s ego has backed the club into a corner from where there is little escape. Nor has it, according to some reports, been endearing to other senior members of United’s squad.

It is now inevitable that Rooney will sign on for another massive pay rise, or finally be sold in the summer. There are more than a few fans, perhaps even the odd team-mate, who tend towards the latter.

Now Rooney must provide more than hard work

September 6, 2013 Tags: Opinion 22 comments
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When Wayne Rooney executed a full-blooded tackle on Ramires near his own corner flag during Manchester United’s recent draw with Chelsea Old Trafford rose to its feet in appreciation. It was about the most exciting thing that happened during a game that said much about Jose Mourinho’s negativity and, potentially, offered a glimpse at David Moyes’s approach too.

That moment seemed to crystallise the ensuing narrative about Rooney’s performance: that he was playing well, looking motivated and was prepared to give his best for the club. Except, Rooney didn’t actually play that well.  He did okay; a six out of 10.  But a player that demands to be centre stage for club and country ought to reach a higher level than when his team really need him.

As most journalists and many fans rushed to heap praise on Rooney the principle justification was that the striker “worked hard.” In other words Rooney “ran around a lot,” making the Scouser a glorified, and very well paid Park Ji-Sung.

Perhaps fans were shocked by the novelty of Rooney putting effort into something other than trying to leave the club.  But a high work-rate is surely the minimum asked of a professional footballer, especially when that footballer is supposedly a world-class.

It is an English world view; that football that is defined by grit, determination and will-power above technical ability. That’s why reports about Rooney’s performance focused on his work-rate and not, for example, his inability to release Robin van Persie through on goal when, instead, the Englishman elected to try and beat Petre Cech from 30 yards.

More widely this attitude is why the enduring images from the English national team over the last 30 years are of Paul Ince and Terry Butcher with blood-stained bandages on their head.  It’s why the enduring national results are of missed penalties in shoot-outs, where technique and mental strength are tested to their limit and ‘our brave boys’ are found wanting.

It’s why the English love to support the underdog, praising effort and courage, rather than celebrating success, and with that the ruthlessness, and above all, skill it takes to reach the pinnacle of the game.

It’s certain that observers from other countries – those that value skill and technique – looked on in astonishment at England’s midfield at Euro 2012, with Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard chasing shadows and consistently giving the ball away. Meanwhile Michael Carrick, the only English player in the past 20 years who comes close to Paul Scholes’ passing ability, remained at home.

Bringing the argument back to United, this attitude is why Rooney’s name has always been sung so loudly, even when his attitude off the pitch, and at times his performances on it, have not warranted the adoration. And the love of effort is why Dimitar Berbatov, who played the game with poise, skill and a Cantona-esque degree of arrogance, was criticised for being ‘lazy’. The Bulgarian didn’t steam into tackles like a madman, but rather gave an impression of being a god among mortals – it made him brilliant fun to watch.

It seems working hard, or running around a lot, proffers players an unusually high amount of leeway too.  And to many, it seems that these ‘qualities’ are valued more than technical ability.

But it’s difficult to think of the last time Rooney lit up a game with any of the qualities that made him such an exciting prospect when he was a teenager.  The 28-year-old does still get into good positions, both between the lines and in the penalty box, and he has good vision, but they alone are not qualities that make a world-class player.  It would be a big stretch to name Rooney in the top 20 players in Europe at the moment.

Put it another way, if Rooney didn’t sport his Roy of the Rovers-esque habit of charging around the pitch, chasing the ball, with a face of determination and rage, would he really be as highly regarded in England? Certainly not after his indifferent form over the past two seasons.

It is telling that Rooney has asked to leave United twice, and on neither occasion did United receive a bid from a club outside of England.

The observation may sound harsh, and of course even since Rooney’s decline began two to three years ago, he has still produced some game-defining moments, but these tend to be surrounded by a greater mediocrity.

United has begun the season requiring more creativity. There has been a worrying lack of invention and creativity in the last two games, and it is no surprise that the Reds failed to score in either.  But what United didn’t need against Liverpool and Chelsea was more effort – the players ought to be doing that anyway.

Besides, Moyes’ side contains plenty of players who do work hard, but while Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia get their shirts sweaty, neither beats a defender, creates chances, or scores goals.

What United really needs from Rooney now is for him to get back to his best – and that means he needs to do more than work hard.  Rooney needs to re-discover that edge that made him terrify defenders; he needs to re-discover his ability to be a creative and goalscoring fulcrum of the side.

Yet, if retaining Rooney and using the striker regularly means United ends up with more bluster and little end product, while Shinji Kagawa sits on the bench, then Moyes’ men will continue to struggle to break down defences. Just as the side did against Chelsea when, for all of Rooney’s supposed good work, the home side failed to create a clear-cut chance.

Rooney, of course, is not the only player who needs to contribute more, but while Young, for example, has never shown match-winning ability at United’s standard, the Scouser has.  And that’s why it is particularly frustrating to hear Rooney being praised for ‘working hard’ on the pitch, as if that is somehow noble, when he has the ability to contribute far more.

If Rooney re-elevates himself to the level seen prior to the 2010 World Cup there is little doubt he should partner van Persie in attack. At his best, Rooney is a special player, but the one on show against Chelsea is not the player United really needs.

Retaining the striker at Old Trafford could be the most impactful decision made by the new manager in his first summer at the club.  Time will tell whether it turns out to be a positive or a negative for the club.

Rooney departure backed by the numbers

August 26, 2013 Tags: Opinion 7 comments
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Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement after sealing Manchester United’s 20th league title last May. The greatest football manager in history could and should have just enjoyed the plaudits that poured in. Instead, he made public Wayne Rooney’s second transfer request to let loose a maelström of media coverage that has lasted to this day.

United’s fans turned against Rooney remarkably quickly. David Moyes had been chosen as Sir Alex’s successor long before the actual announcement. And given the history between the new United manager and the former Everton prodigy, Ferguson conceivably put out the transfer request story to aid the fellow Scot should the incoming man deem Rooney expendable. It is likely that a previous assertion on Rant, arguing that the time had come to let the forward go, may now find greater favour.

Continental Europe, though, has never been a realistic destination. With everything tallied Rooney is the third highest earner in world football and even those few continental teams with financial muscle to handle the deal have shown little interest in a player clearly in decline.  Rooney does not offer an improvement over players teams such as Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona or Paris Saint Germain.

It would be a risky deal for all parties. Rooney has never left the north west, let alone England and there is a genuine risk that the player would not settle in a new culture. The former PFA Players’ Player of the Year is not in a position to gamble in a World Cup year, while two very young children complicates matters. Simply put, Rooney cannot rationally move to a club outside the Premier League with possibly his last major international tournament closing in.

Nor is domestic competition for his services fierce. In 2010 Manchester City attempted to recruit Rooney, but United’s neighbours now boasts a stable of talented players in the striker’s position.

Chelsea, on the other hand, has shown a definitive interest in signing the wayward England ace. Because of a dearth in quality in the country Rooney remains the best English player. Moreover, Chelsea could rid itself of the nouveau riche tag should the London club succeed in capturing the “White Pele.”

But Chelsea’s rise would come at United’s expense. The transfer should be carefully considered.

Rooney versus van Persie Rooney RVP
Average Pass Accuracy 83% 80%
Average Pass Length 17m 17m
Key Passes Per Game 1.8 1.8

 

Rooney 2011/12 2012/13
Average Pass Accuracy 81% 83%
Average Passes Per Game 50 46
Assists Per Game 0.12 0.37
Key Passes Per Game 1.5 1.8
Goals Per Game 0.79 0.44

Data offers some insight into Rooney’s performance over the past two years.

United’s tactical approach – to control matches through ball retention – remained more or less the same during the period. In 2011/12, the Reds accumulated 20,184 passes. In 2012/13, the figure was 19,686 leaving United right up there with possession based teams such as Arsenal and Swansea City.

Rooney scored more in 2011/12, but assisted more a season later – Robin Van Persie’s acquisition is the obvious cause. Despite playing nominally at number 10 in both seasons, Rooney was used much more in a supporting role in 2012/13 due to the Dutchman’s arrival.

Given that Rooney’s form noticeably dropped in Ferguson’s last season, the 27-year-old should be commended for putting up decent numbers – as good a sign as any of Rooney’s natural talent.

Having said that the former Arsenal captain’s arrival released Rooney from being the only reliable source of goals at United. Whether by instruction or instinct, Rooney spent increasingly more time in central midfield. He should have seen a lot more of the ball as a result, but the decrease in passes made indicates that Rooney failed to stamp his authority on games in 2012/13.

Curiously there is virtually no change in Rooney’s defensive statistics from 2011/12 to 2012/13. Despite his increased presence in central midfield, the number 10 contributed very little defensively. It is risky to make assumptions based on just one game, but Danny Welbeck played a very similar role in the season opener against Swansea and made three interceptions – Rooney averaged 0.5 per match last season.

Rooney’s physical decline has been frequently noted too. The player’s visible puffing last season has not quelled critical observations. And a big manifestation of this is Rooney’s inability to break past opponents. In 2011/12, Rooney on average completed one dribble per game. The number shrunk to 0.4 in 2012/13.

The numbers offer some indication of Rooney’s decline, and while Chelsea being the player’s only admirer complicates matters greatly, any decent offer should be accepted if finance is a concern.

Chelsea, meanwhile, has nothing to lose. Despite the obvious deterioration Rooney demonstrated his inner genius by managing 12 goals and 10 assists last season. Just as no club was blamed for Paul Gascoigne’s decline, Chelsea will not be held liable should Rooney continue on his current path.

The club could win the public relations game though. After all, José Mourinho once convinced Samuel Eto’o to play full-back, and he can certainly bring Rooney’s mental state around. Not only will Chelsea benefit on the pitch, the club would also be hailed for saving the man who could finally bring the nation glory at the World Cup.

But the west London club is not just interested in PR. After all, Rooney is still a pretty good player, with all the attributes to adapt his game to the role at number nine Mourniho seeks. Crucially, the Liverpool-born player can use his natural understanding of space to bring other players into the action. The London club boasts a fine set of attacking midfielders and Rooney can bring fluidity, while providing the goalscoring that Chelsea’s forwards lack.

However, the transfer may impact United more than Chelsea. After all, Mourinho’s squad boasts more quality than United’s – for the Portuguese Rooney is not essential to his tactical vision. Moyes, however, needs Rooney or someone of similar talent and quality.

Uniteds’ shortages are affecting Moyes’ approach. In the Swansea game, United bypassed the midfield entirely and the manager asked his team to attack opportunistically. The inclusion of Ryan Giggs raised a few eyebrows, but the selection was forced by the composition of United’s squad.

United’s central midfield lacks a player who can push forward and provide creativity. With little imagination in the squad’s attacking midfielders and wingers, the direct approach was a pragmatic effort. But even against a mid-table side, the brute-force plan cannot be relied upon and Giggs was included to provide moments of creativity.

Meanwhile, Shinji Kagawa, who is quite possibly the most specialized playmaker in the league, has not been used by Moyes. The Japanese can certainly do a job as a classical playmaker, but he exists to play the final ball. To use the Japanese to his fullest extent, the team needs to be built around him; at the very least Kagawa needs Cesc Fabregas, or a similar player, behind him. Such an acquisition looks increasingly unlikely.

Unitil then Rooney is still is a good player, albeit in decline, who can cover a variety of positions. Even if a big name or two arrives Rooney can provide might provide Moyes with a good rotation option. If anything, big signings could stoke the fire in the Scouser’s heart.

It is a key decision for Moyes to take.

While Ferguson’s shadow will always follow future United managers this is especially true for Moyes. Ferguson’s man management has often been lauded and his successful relationship with Eric Cantona is frequently cited as an example. The Reds supported Cantona through good times and bad. With fans seemingly against Rooney, Moyes faces a much tougher task this time around.

Data sources: Squawka, WhoScored

van Persie and Welbeck threaten to put Rooney in the shade

August 18, 2013 Tags: , , Opinion 30 comments
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The insouciant shrug of the shoulders, a look of frustration, a sharp word with the referee; a new season, same old Wayne Rooney. Except that the striker’s moments of petulance on Saturday came in duplicate, following each of the goals that he helped to create, as Manchester United scored victory on the opening day of the new campaign.

Rooney’s return was in extract the essence of David Moyes’ dilemma this summer: retain Rooney, whatever the player’s mental breach, or dispatch a player who can create with such devastating effect.

Yet, there remains something unseemly about Rooney’s presence in Red; a player no longer in love with the club, if ever he was, and quite possibly in decline.

Perhaps it is the memory of George Best’s final days in Manchester, perhaps more ephemeral than that, but Rooney barely looked fit – an unkempt beard adding to the appearance of a player whose finest moments are now well in the past.

With barely a game in aggregate over the pre-season period Rooney’s limited match sharpness is forgivable; the lack of application certainly isn’t.

And yet, whatever the Scouser’s dramas this summer, the 27-year-old still managed a hand in two goals at the Liberty Stadium, first for Robin van Persie and then Danny Welbeck. The talent is probably undiminished even if the physical prowess is degenerating fast.

If Rooney’s presence was a distraction then it is perhaps fortunate that United’s four goals in south Wales will focus supporters’ minds on those whose star is in the ascendancy at Old Trafford: van Persie and Welbeck.

Indeed, the pair scored three stunning strikes against Michael Laudrup’s outfit despite United spending large portions of the match on the back foot. Swansea, superbly neat in possession, will retain the ball against many teams this season, but it was United’s high-quality finishing that secured victory in Moyes’ first Premier League match in charge.

van Persie’s first was a microcosm of the Dutchman’s year at United. Dragging Ryan Giggs’ lofted pass out of the air, van Persie turned and gleefully smashed a right-footed volley into the top corner of the Swan’s net to put United ahead.

Welbeck added a second from short-range, before the Dutchman’s second – a smart turn from right to left and a quite stunning strike into Michel Vorm’s top corner. Class: the Dutchman has bags of it.

But Welbeck held back the best to last, with the England international taking Rooney’s slide-rule pass and beating Vorm with a delicately lofted finish. There was more than a touch of Eric Cantona in the goal’s majestic simplicity – an observation that mocks both Welbeck’s many detractors and the player’s record of just one goal in the Premier League last season.

“Danny’s got a bigger total already,” said Moyes in the aftermath.

“Unfortunately, I think his goal against Scotland might have helped lift his confidence. I was more pleased with his first goal here because I think if you’re a centre-forward you’ve got to get tap-ins.”

“I thought we were incisive, our finishing was fantastic. It was a brilliant performance against a Swansea team who I believe will do very well this season.”

Welbeck will surely improve on that goalscoring record in the months ahead, although Moyes’ decision to deploy the 22-year-old in a deeper role against both Swansea on Saturday and Wigan Athletic in the Community Shield is counter-intuitive to the forecast.

Yet, Moyes’ choice affords Welbeck far more opportunities to drift late into scoring areas than Sir Alex Ferguson’s deployment of the striker to the left wing. Joy, then, when Welbeck sealed United’s victory; for both player and travelling supporters drenched in the south Wales downpour.

By contrast any joy at Rooney’s 30 minute cameo was forced. True, Rooney had a significant impact, finding passes for both van Persie’s second and Welbeck’s final flourish. Yet, the former Evertonian cut a lonely presence, ignoring his teammates’ celebrations – mirroring every former frustrated fading star.

United supporters remain on the fence – yet to publicly voice the inner anger many have expressed in media away from the stadium. The player, warming up before a second-half appearance, was even greeted with a burst of song from a group of United’s supporters, although the Rooney’s entrance brought mixed warmth.

Still, Moyes remained fulsome in praise for the striker, whom he insists will not leave before the transfer window closes in around a fortnight’s time.

“Wayne did well when he came on, he made a great run which opened up the chance for Robin to go on to his left foot for our third goal, and also the ball he slipped through for Welbeck’s second was weighted lovely, so he helped the team and played a part in getting the result,” said Moyes.

“The supporters recognise good players at Manchester United and I think they recognised that when Wayne came on. He got quite a bad kick down the back of his achilles, he’s still lacking match fitness, but another 30 minutes today will bring him on. I thought when he went on he was incredibly committed.”

The question of whether Rooney is deployed from the start against Chelsea next weekend is likely to garner more headlines in the coming week. After all, Rooney’s prospective employers in west London have failed with three official bids for a player who is seemingly desperate to secure the move south.

Conflict of interest? Not half.

For the moment, though, the glory is all van Persie’s. And Welbeck’s. And a little bit Moyes’.

After all, the Dutchman has embraced United in a manner to which Rooney is seemingly incapable. Welbeck, a United player for more than a decade, is as desperate to succeed as the supporters are for him to achieve that dream.

More pragmatically van Persie’s goals, Welbeck’s growing excellence and potentially Shinji Kagawa’s talent may negate any damage from Rooney’s physical decline. That remains true whether the errant forward stays in Manchester or not.

Woodward heads home amid increasing farce

July 17, 2013 Tags: , , Opinion No comments
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There was a tacit policy under David Gill’s leadership, or an attempt at least, to keep Manchester United’s transfer dealings under wraps. The thought process was sound: while tabloid-fueled speculation filled the back pages, and social media hummed a summer long, the club retained a silent dignity. It is a policy seemingly broken during the present transfer window.

Briefing and counter briefing has dominated what is fast becoming ‘the Wayne Rooney saga’, while a comically mistimed transfer chase for Barcelona pair Thiago Alcântara and Cesc Fàbregas has gone awry. It is, in truth, United’s very untidy mess.

Indeed, such is the public relations fall-out from the club’s latest gaffe – disingenuously briefing travelling media that Chelsea had offered Juan Mata and cash for the England striker’s signature – that the Reds’ reputation is now at stake.

At risk of descending to Kenyonesque levels of asinine farce, United has served too often to embarrass onlooking fans this summer. Worse still – and at risk of drawing significant ire – United’s maladroit transfer market tactics have drawn comparison with the very worst that Manchester City’s Garry Cook, now departed, had to offer.

New United chief Edward Woodward, or executive vice chairman as the 40-year-old is euphuistically titled, flew back to Europe on Wednesday. The pretext: United is close to concluding a “major” piece of transfer business. Fans live in hope that a swift conclusion may come to the short-lived Fàbregas seduction; the cynic may wonder whether Leon Osman’s inevitable acquisition has been secured.

Woodward’s return is, supporters have mused, not before time. After all, it comes to something when United’s chief has focused far greater effort on courting the club’s sponsors off the pitch than strengthening the a manager’s hand on it. Money in the bank, legend has Sir Matt Busby musing. I’d rather see it on the pitch.

But the executive returns amid an embarrassingly public row with Chelsea over Rooney’s future, with the London club issuing a revealing statement on Wednesday as news leaked of an official bid for the Scouser’s services. That bid, said the Blues in a statement, contained not the reported inclusion of Juan Mata nor David Luiz as makeweight.

“Chelsea can confirm that yesterday it made a written offer to Manchester United for the transfer of Wayne Rooney,” read the statement.

“Although the terms of that offer are confidential, for the avoidance of doubt and contrary to what is apparently being briefed to the press in Sydney, the proposed purchase does not include the transfer of any players from Chelsea to United.”

Ouch.

Predictably United – in Australia ahead of Saturday’s fixture with the A-League All Stars – has said nothing in retort. Silence of the damned.

Indeed, mention of Chelsea’s bid for Old Trafford’s £27 million forward was entirely absent from United’s official website on Wednesday.

But the latest twist in the Rooney debacle is just one leg of a axis of absurdity this summer. In between came the ham-fisted appeal to Barcelona youngster Thiago. The club did little concrete to secure the transfer bar enabling Catalonia’s finest to extract a few extra Euros from Bayern Munich’s plentiful well. After all Pep Guardiola’s interest can hardly have been secret to the player’s camp – thiago’s agent is Pep’s brother.

And then came the latest twist, with United submitting an official bid for Fàbregas – a national icon – a mere 24 hours after Bayern celebrated Thiago’s capture. Subtle United was not. Nor successful, with the club’s presumably faxed offer met with a predictably proverbial reply.

While the Reds’ thinking may be sound, the timing is absurdly not.

True, Fàbregas is thought to have grown restless at Camp Nou, though not because he has lacked appearances – the former Arsenal midfielder turned out more than 40 times for Los Culés last season – but that he is rarely called upon in the biggest games.

Overlooked for Barça’s pivotal Champions League fixture against Bayern, ignored in key matches against Real Madrid, Fàbregas is a far smaller fish than he was at Arsenal, now swimming in a very large pond.

But while the player may well entertain a premature move back to the Premier League the smart money says he is reluctant to do so against the motherland’s wishes. Barça may require hard currency after spending lavishly on Neymar and Lionel Messi’s new contract this summer, but face will be lost in Cesc’s departure.

Fàbregas’ return to the Emirates is probably 12 months away.

Indeed, with news filtering through on Wednesday that United has sought council with Real Madrid over the possible transfer of Luka Modrić, the club’s approach is beginning to feel increasing scattergun. Look up central midfielder. Hit speed dial. Hope.

Except that hope has never been a sound strategy.

Yet, it is Rooney for whom the highest drama is set to play out,. The 27-year-old’s position in Manchester now untenable, with each side seeking the best financial return possible and little more.

That may be a tougher gig for United than Rooney.

While the Reds once sought a fee in excess of £40 million for a man who scored more than 30 goals in a campaign not 18 months ago Chelsea is reported to have offered just half. With City, Barça, Real and even Paris Saint Germain seemingly uninterested, United’s options – and to a degree Rooney’s – are limited.

Reports that Rooney has set his heart on Stamford Bridge may not be far from the mark. It leaves the Scouser short of the moral high-ground his public relations team has so often sought, but likely to be heavy of wallet come the summer’s end.

José Mourinho claimed that the Londoners’ interest is “proper,” “ethical” and “clean” on Wednesday. Three adjectives rarely associated with the club.

Yet, it United that remains a touch light on aces for the negotiation with Chelsea to come. Can the club keep Rooney to his contract, as Woodward mused at the weekend? There is simply not a chance.

In that there is also a moment of clarity. One that may provide Woodward pause for thought as he rethinks the club’s oddball approach in the window’s remaining six weeks.

Rooney cut to size in United’s game of brinkmanship

July 15, 2013 Tags: Opinion No comments
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One wondered just how much Manchester United would take before a line was finally drawn. Briefing and counter-briefing a summer long, the club holding Wayne Rooney to the lucrative five-year contract signed the last time the player wanted out; the striker’s people  maneuvering the media game to only marginally credible effect.

So it comes to something when United’s manager and executive vice chairman stepped into the debate within hours of each other over the weekend. These were significant developments too, with United making the club’s position clear: Rooney will not leave on his terms and if necessary the Reds will allow the player’s contract to run down.

Behind the scenes Rooney’s people seemingly continue to press for a move away. Indeed, the positions of both parties has been greatly clarified since David Moyes officially took up residency at Old Trafford on 1 July. It is now clear that United has little intention of being manipulated by the player for a second time in three years – at least not while the player has so much to prove.

Rooney, by contrast, has a dwindling will to remain in Manchester – at least not until there’s a new contract to negotiate.

So there was little surprise when United’s new chief Edward Woodward dismissed the notion that a deal is there to be struck. After all, United holds the cards this time around; the aces being the player’s dire recent form and Robin van Persie’s excellence. No longer United’s star turn, Rooney is in a far weaker position than during his ‘October Revolution’ in 2010.

“I am not sitting down with any player on an extension and there is no trigger date in the diary,” 40-year-old Woodward told Sky Sports.

“No contract renewals are being discussed. Would we be afraid to run a contract down? Of course not. I’m not ­surprised clubs like Chelsea and Arsenal want Wayne but he’s not for sale and we won’t be ­selling him.”

Moyes got in on the act, implicitly relegating Rooney to the position of van Persie’s understudy – further weakening the Englishman’s hand. Not, of course, that events on the field hadn’t conspired to make this so in any case.

And with United’s senior management seemingly in unison Rooney’s options have narrowed – potentially for 12 months – a prospect that may be unpalatable to the 27-year-old given the player’s awe-inspiring sulk towards the back-end of last season.

“Overall my thought on Wayne is, if for any reason we had an injury to Robin van Persie, we’ll need him,” said Moyes as United’s left Thailand for the second leg of the club’s summer tour in Australia.

“This is a chance for me to get Wayne right back to where he was. I want to be able to play the two of them, I want to use Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández as well. Maybe in a year’s time we might have to look at something else.”

It that there is an essential truth, with the Dutchman certain to start as United’s principle forward in the coming season, leaving Rooney to compete with Shinji Kagawa for a place in van Persie’s shadow or wait for an unlikely injury.

Moyes’ determination to stamp his mark on the club has also become a factor, with the former Evertonian seemingly unwilling to let his  charge dictate terms. It is surely a smart move lest the new manager appear weak within months of taking the job.

Nor can Rooney now bank on support from the terraces in what is likely to become a more aggressive PR game as the saga reaches it’s denouement. After all, while Rooney’s entourage has widely briefed the media that no formal transfer request has ever been submitted, the club called the bluff by seemingly daring the player to do so if he wants a move away.

“Manchester United isn’t about Wayne, Manchester United is about the team, the club,” said the new manager. “I won’t allow Wayne Rooney to become more important than the club and the team because that’s the heart of it.”

Injury complimented Rooney’s insult last Friday, with the player heading home ahead of United’s tour match in Bangkok – a hamstring strain that is likely to keep the player out for three weeks.

Moyes called the problem minor, but the player’s history suggests that Rooney will be significantly behind his colleagues’ fitness levels come the big kick off on 17 August.

It proffers Hernández, Welbeck and Kagawa the opportunity to forge a partnership with van Persie in the Scouser’s absence – a withdrawal that may become permanent should Chelsea, Arsenal or Paris Saint Germain firm up tentative interest in the player.

The Dutchman arrives in Sydney for a week’s intensive training ahead of United’s fixture with the A-League All Stars next weekend. Saturday’s shock 1-0 defeat to Singha All Stars leaves the squad seeking to inject a more positive tone in Moyes’ second United game as manager.

van Persie’s arrival will certainly provide a lift – and another sign that United has moved on since Rooney questioned the club’s “ambition” in 2010.

Monday’s £25 million bid for Cesc Fabregas could offer Moyes another option in both midfield – where Sir Alex Ferguson increasingly used Rooney last season – and as van Persie’s foil. Fabregas was one of only 13 players in Europe’s top five leagues to finish last season with both 10 goals and 10 assists.

In fact the Spaniard scored and assisted more league goals than Anderson, Tom Cleverley, Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck combined last season, although Fabregas’ arrival at Old Trafford is surely unlikely.

Rooney, of course, was another in that exclusive club. It is the Englishman’s essential dichotomy – he is one of the continent’s most productive players even when in the doldrums of abysmal form.

Whether Moyes can bring the player’s performances around is a fascinating question – but one that’ll only be tested if Rooney blinks first in the realpoltik of the transfer market.