Wayne Rooney scored a hat-trick on his Champions league debut in 2004 and in the almost 15 years that have passed before his next European hat trick two months ago, the world has seen the best of one of England’s finest all-round players. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever and so Wayne Rooney is no longer the bustling young player he once was as he is gradually getting past his prime. It is pretty much the same towards the twilight of even the most glorious career.
Sadly, Rooney’s decline has come at a time when the reins of leadership has fallen on him; at a time when so much depends on him as Manchester United undergoes a tortuous transition period under Coach Louis Van Gaal, after Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26-year reign. The club finished fourth last season but despite remaining among the top three for the entirety of the season so far, it has been largely unimpressive, performance wise. Rooney has, since his debut for Manchester United, been one of the key players for the club and so his performances this term have been a major highlight of the club’s struggles, so much so that the club’s below par performances are even ascribed to his deteriorating form.
Rooney turns 30 this weekend, but while his body may not entirely agree with him, the passion and will have not deserted him; but these alone do not guarantee a starting berth in a team like Manchester United – not with the impressive performances of new boy Anthony Martial, Ander Herrera, Chris Smalling and David De Gea. Accordingly, his continuous place in the team’s starting eleven has been questioned – especially with the displacement of Martial to the left flank to accommodate him in the centre – and justifiably so.
However, history has proven that Manchester United are often better with Rooney on the pitch than off it. There is no doubt that he takes the attention of defenders (who double up on him) thereby creating room for others. One would expect the club to play to, and exploit this strength by having players make runs off him. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The team seems content with passing the ball around and retaining possession with no penetration, especially against well-knit and experienced defenses. Herein lies the problem.
Manchester United has a tradition of fast-paced attacking football and its recruitment of personnel has often been influenced by this. However, the lack of movement and slow build-up of the (now evident possession-based) “philosophy” Luis Van Gaal must have been talking about, has clearly taken the sting out of the team’s attacking play. More so because, despite his massive recruitment, it seems he still does not have the right personnel to effectively execute his philosophy.
Against boyhood club Everton last weekend, Rooney scored his first away league goal of the season. Morgan Schneiderlin intercepted Phil Jagielka’s poor pass and immediately located Herrera, who picked out Rooney’s run beyond the recovering Jagielka with a through ball. Rooney’s other 5 goals all season have been scored in similar fashion: from balls played in to him facing the opposing goal!
The team therefore has to move the ball from defense to attack faster so as not allow the opposition to regain their defensive shape.
Barcelona are the only team which has successfully deployed the possession-based game to effect – and it worked (in Spain) with a particular crop of players due to the influence of exceptional ball-passers like Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. Arsenal’s glorified passing game accounted for their trophy less 9 years which ended last year when the team added speed of transition to their possession play.
For United, the issue is not exclusively about Rooney not scoring, but that the movement of the ball is just too slow, while supply is poor due to the lack of penetration via final passes and off-the-ball runs behind defenses. Van Gaal’s possession philosophy will only work when the players pass the ball fast enough to prevent Rooney, Martial or Depay having to take on two or three defenders, or Rooney having his back to goal, by the time the ball gets to them.
It is clearly up to Van Gaal to make these adjustments.