Wayne Rooney, few would argue that he is not what he once was. But what exactly was Wayne Rooney?
An out-and-out goalscorer? This would appear to be the consensus if ex-pros in the media are to be believed. However, the statistics certainly would not support this idea. Despite Rooney currently seeming on the cusp of trickling past every goal scoring record available, seldom in his 15 years in professional football has he justified the tag of goalscorer. The 31-year-old has scored 20-plus goals in only three of his 14 full seasons plying his trade in the ‘big leagues’, 23 in 2006/07 in addition to 34 in both 2009/10 and 2011/12; it was in these two seasons where Rooney can be viewed as a true, elite goalscorer – utilising his energy to often set the template of how to play the lone striker role. The UEFA Champions League last 16 tie under the lights at San Siro in 2010 serves as a prime example of this, with the then 24-year-old reducing two goliaths of the modern game in Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva to amateurish shadow chasers. It must be said that in this brief period where Rooney showed his class as a striker, he was exemplary.
However, 264 goals in 611 club games to date – although very good statistics – are not those of an elite goalscorer. The reality is that Rooney’s statistics simply pale in comparison with elite goalscorers currently plying their trade at elite level clubs. Rooney has scored on average every 2.3 games, certainly not poor reading; however, other elite clubs’ goalscorers such as Robert Lewandowski, Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero boast averages of a goal every 1.7, 1.5 and 1.87 games respectively. Although these margins may seem fine, when scaled up against the number of appearances Wayne Rooney has made at club level, Lewandowski and co would have scored 94, 140 and 61 more goals than the England captain. While these individuals admittedly do represent the elite goalscorers on the planet, this is the natural point of comparison for a Manchester United striker.
With the reality seeming that Rooney has not played out his career as an elite goalscorer, the question lingers, was the United captain not a goal scorer or simply not elite? Sir Alex Ferguson would move Rooney from behind the main striker, to the wings and even push a man at the peak of his powers as deep as central midfield to accommodate the superstar of the day – whether that be Ruud van Nistelrooy or Cristiano Ronaldo. A greater example cannot be taken than the 2008 UEFA Champions League Final, United’s biggest game in nine years, Wayne Rooney found himself on the left-wing.
To some it would appear as though the greatest manager to grace this nation sacrificed the talents of England’s great hope for the short-term success of Manchester United. And to an extent this would seem to ring true, the flexibility of Wayne Rooney in those Ferguson United teams prevented Rooney from truly specialising as a centre forward, learning the art of discrete movement which would ease the Englishman through his physical decline. Conversely, it cannot be said that Wayne Rooney was not elite in his role enabling the superstars of the day. There is little coincidence in that the years Rooney grew into his role buzzing around Ronaldo from 2006 until the Portuguese superstar’s world record departure in 2009, United enjoyed one of the most successful periods in the club’s history. Wayne Rooney was truly sensational in his role within Ferguson’s Manchester United.
Skip ahead five years to August 2014, the ‘superior’ superstars are gone, Sir Alex is gone, Wayne Rooney is the main man at Manchester United. In theory, this is Rooney’s time to glisten, to show the world how he is the striker he has frustratingly and persistently proclaimed himself to be as he played second fiddle to Ronaldo’s and van Persie’s of the world. Yet what can be found here, is a rabbit in the headlights; a 29-year-old whose legs were beginning to desert him and who – after years of enabling the stars around him – didn’t know his own footballing identity. This much remains apparent today, for a brief period it seemed that the England captain bought into the idea that he was the natural successor to Scholes, dropping back into the engine room – before regressing to the assertion that he was in-fact a forward. Rooney no longer has the capability to romp through defences in the feral style he employed at the peak of his physical powers as a striker – he does however still have an important role to play at Manchester United, should he accept it. Rooney can still offer the only thing he has truly ever specialised in throughout his club career in enabling United’s new breed of superstars to shine, creating space for the likes of Pogba to find, and for Zlatan to work in. As for Wayne Rooney taking centre stage, unfortunately, it’s far too late for that.
So, is the Wayne Rooney occupying the Old Trafford dugout today a product of natural decline or of our own making? In truth, he is a combination. As aforementioned, it is clear to see that Rooney no longer possesses the physical capacity to produce all action performances, leaving centre halves taking turns chasing his shadow – akin to his 09-12 form. However, his role as an enabler to supposed superior talents in those Ferguson years has robbed Rooney of the time to truly learn his trade as a centre forward and adapt his game beyond reliance upon raw ability. Whether due to his own attitude to coaching or being shifted to and from midfield, Wayne Rooney mentally remains the 18-year-old signed 12 years ago, left behind by the decline of his body, failing to evolve into the main man.
By Jonathan Murphy