Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher claimed after Manchester United’s 3-1 win over Bournemouth that Wayne Rooney could be the perfect foil to Paul Pogba in the centre of midfield. However, they’re completely wrong. Using an article on Sky Sports that summarizes and explains Carragher’s and Neville’s arguments, I will explain why they are wrong in many ways.
“On paper, he was a No 10, but he played as a No 8, he played as a No 6 and he played as a No 10 at different times. If you look at the end of last season and Wayne Rooney’s touch maps, he played in central midfield and if you look at the touches there was (only) one of them in the box.” – Carragher
While Carragher’s analysis of Rooney’s positioning is spot on, it explains exactly one of the reasons why he cannot be part of this United side. Firstly, this explains that he is not playing the role that is expected of him, which is the foil to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Rooney should be making runs forward to accommodate Ibrahimovic moving deeper, not both moving deeper and there not being an outlet to occupy defenders. This forces Ibrahimovic to move defenders out of position on his own, and forcing Ibrahimovic to use his pace would be using his one non-strength.
Secondly, it shows the positional inconsistency Rooney adds to United’s midfield. Rooney may add space in which Paul Pogba could move forward, but he will also congest the space in which Pogba can maneuver. Pogba’s typical role is to control the game as much as it is to offer firepower, and if Rooney comes deep and Pogba moves forward, Rooney’s inability to pass forward from deep, which was on show against Bournemouth, would be exploited by creating a complete isolation between midfielders and forwards.
He’d also interfere with United’s deepest midfielder, which forces them to either stay deep and maintain possession or risk positioning to find Pogba. Assuming Marouane Fellaini pairs Pogba in midfield against Southampton, he will be playing the same role he did against Bournemouth- one of immense positional discipline- and Rooney will create a disturbance. Rooney’s presence in midfield would occupy Pogba’s spaces, free the opposition central defenders and interfere with United’s defensive setup if he tries to pair United’s new signing in midfield.
“I think there are two reasons he’s playing deeper. I think it’s because he enjoys it… and he’s getting older…. Jose Mourinho has thrown a spanner in the works by saying he needs to play further forwards. He will continue to come deeper. It’s where he’s comfortable.” – Neville
As a United fan, I am also a fan of Gary Neville, but this is a statement of absolute nonsense. There are no excuses to not fulfilling positional duties, older or not. If he is too old to fit the demands of the position, he should not be on the pitch. Mourinho shouldn’t make exceptions about his role because he is older- if he is going to do that, he may as well just not have a system or any expectations of his players. One could argue Mourinho should build the system around his players, but a system without Rooney suits everybody else and United isn’t doing that right now anyways.
“I don’t particularly like it in this set-up because you’ve got two holding midfield players, but what I would say is that when Paul Pogba comes into this team, he’s a box-to-box player and at times he will empty midfield, I think that could be a fantastic partnership going forward for Manchester United, actually switching positions. At times Pogba can find himself in the No 10 position with Rooney deeper. Pogba can bomb past and Wayne Rooney can fill in for him in central midfield.”So that could be a bonus for Manchester United considering who is coming into the team.” – Carragher
While Carragher is right about the system’s deficiencies that could either limit Pogba or United’s defence, that does not mean United could allow Rooney to drop deeper. In no situation, ever, is Rooney a replacement to Pogba defensively. Pogba moving forward would be a gap that could not be filled by Rooney. Therefore, it is even more sensible to allow someone like Ander Herrera to play alongside Pogba with someone in behind, allowing them to share defensive responsibility. Mourinho highlighted in his opening press conference that Rooney offers nothing special in midfield, and he clearly doesn’t offer enough going forward to not encourage him to drop deeper.
“It wouldn’t even surprise me if Pogba and Rooney play in front of a holding midfield player. I think them two can play well together, he’s got enough intelligence and he can arrive in the box.” – Neville
This would actually be incredibly surprising, considering one of the first things Mourinho said was that Rooney isn’t a midfielder. In fact, playing him in midfield now would be a sign that Mourinho has been forced by a greater authority to play Rooney, regardless of how poor he is.
“Last season he was getting 100-odd touches on the left of three in midfield. Now he’s got Jose Mourinho come in and say you’re not going to play there, you’re going to play as a No 10. I think what he probably needs is stability and a manager to stay with him for two or three years. He now needs to settle in to that latter-phase-of-his-career position.” – Neville
Lastly, he’s had a chance in every way possible. He played midfield in Sir Alex Ferguson’s last year, and looked alright, but hated it. He had his chance and handed in a transfer request. Then, he played striker for David Moyes and United could not score goals in big matches. Then he played in midfield under Louis van Gaal and was atrocious. He was so bad playing striker that van Gaal actually benched him for a match last season. Finally, he played as an advanced midfielder throughout 2016, and it has been almost a year now, and he is still playing horribly. He doesn’t have two or three years anymore either- is Neville trying to say he’ll be 33-34 before he can be judged properly?
It doesn’t take a genius to know that Rooney simply doesn’t possess any of the attributes to play in midfield, and his technical and mental games have declined faster than his physical one. Neville and Carragher are trying to pay tribute to a player who was great in his day, but it simply isn’t working. A goal against Bournemouth can’t hide the fact he was the worst player across both sides, and playing him in midfield would be an insult to Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin, all of whom seem to have promise for the season, along with new signing Pogba. While Neville and Carragher’s positional analysis of Rooney was fantastic, it more so proved that he can’t play with Pogba in midfield than that he can.