So here’s the question. You’ve got England’s most talented, most creative and best goalscorer. He’s your best player. He’s started the season in imperious form, scoring and creating goals for the champions. You have a wealth of striking options whilst your midfield is perhaps not the force it once was. So where do you play England’s best player?
For now, Wayne Rooney finds himself playing in the centre of Manchester United’s midfield.
There has for quite some time been a vocal few who have voiced their opinions that as Rooney matures, he will drop back into the central creative role for United (and maybe even England) the heir apparent to Paul Scholes, perhaps the best string-puller the Premier League has seen. However, following his deployment in the cental midfield role by Sir Alex Ferguson in both of Manchester United’s last two matches – the Champions League clash with Otelul Galati at Old Trafford and the not-wholly-convincing Premier League win over Sunderland at the same venue – Rooney’s time to go from goal-getter to playmaker may have come sooner than expected.
However, if it’s to prove a success for either the team or the individual, then a change in style and/or tactics may be necessary.
In the 1-0 win over Sunderland, Rooney’s presence alongside Darren Fletcher quite simply unbalanced United. Rooney is not the answer to the latter-day Scholes, who sat and used his range of passing to dictate matches from a pocket of space in front of the back-four. Whereas Scholes was always reverred abroad for his sublime technical ability and vision, Rooney has always been admired for his spirit, never-say-die attitude, touch and movement – many an Italian manager, not least Giovanni Trappatoni, saying that he is the purest all-round number nine playing today. Placing Rooney in such a deep central position, which necessitates he take on defensive roles also, will restrict his ability to float around the pitch looking for space from which to devastate opposing defences, and threatens to subdue his irrepressible talent.
On Saturday, on more occasions than one would care to count, Rooney could be seen occupying postions – both in and out of possession – not befitting a central midfielder. His enthusiasm, his want to get involved in all aspects of the action, took him into areas that would have been better left for the use of his team-mates, particularly Nani and Welbeck, two of United’s more clever one-on-one dribblers.
WIth two such powerful runners playing in the central area, neither of whom are at their best when wanted to stick to one area (Fletcher a far more effective box-to-box player than holder), United lacked any semblance of tempo and threat, and they struggled to test the Sunderland backline for any kind of sustained period.
The creation and interplay that Sir Alex Ferguson must have hoped Rooney’s deeper positioning would enforce on his team simply didn’t happen – you wonder if Ferguson wants Rooney to take on a role fulfilled by one or two of Manchester City players in Roberto Mancini’s set-up, the Yaya Toure Gladiatorial role, or the David Silva trequarista position, or even an amalgamation of the two – as there were few clever one-twos and fewer driving runs through the heart of the Black Cats.
Laboured is perhaps the best term you can use to describe United’s performance. But it isn’t merely the fault of Rooney, nor is it because he can’t be effective in that area.
Rooney has made no secret of his admiration of Barcelona’s Xavi, the Spanish international purveyor of tiki-taka, who is the premier playmaker in world football over the last decade. It is the Barcelona number six who Rooney has been studying as he looks to broaden his own horizons as he looks to become accustomed to what could be a new permanent role.
Yet, the contrasting styles of Los Cules and the Red Devils mean that Rooney’s deployment in the central area compared with Xavi, is almost as different as comparing the Barcelona conductor to Jon Obi Mikel, the Chelsea defensive anchor.
When Rooney picks up the ball centrally, playing in United’s 4-4-2 formation, the pattern of play is pretty much set for him. Square passes either side to full-backs, a simple five-yarder to his midfield partner, raking diagonals out to either Nani or Ashley Young on the wings, a vertical pass to the second striker or an attempt at a cutting through ball for Javier Hernandez in behind. For a side that attacks down the flanks as much as United do, they’re options that opposing sides can look to combat, as the attack only really begins to pick up pace (counter-attacks excluded) when the ball is switched out to the wings. If they widemen are not at their best (Kieran Richardson nullified the threat of Nani excellently for the large part on Saturday) then the work of the central midfielders is much less noticeable and appears uneffective, as play breaks down, and the central pairing have to move across to do defensive work. Therefore, against Sunderland, it can be said that Rooney was uneffective.
Xavi on the other hand, orchestrates Barcelona attacks with simple passes, biding his time, whilst his team-mates make runs and move around him. He, and Sergio Busquets the midfield anchor, are the only players in the side who aren’t in perpetual motion. Wingers don’t stick to touchlines, Messi drops into whatever space he feels is best, whilst Dani Alves makes lung-bursting runs as soon as Xavi dictates for him to run beyond the opposition defence.Whereas Rooney may only have four players in front of him making forward options from United’s central area, Xavi sometimes has as many as eight options ahead of him.
The movement of the reigning European champions is more free-flowing, always revolving, always adapting. Xavi the brains. United’s play-pattern is more structured, less off the cuff, looking to isolate full-backs in one-on-one situations and to get crosses/ cut-backs into the box for oncoming forwards.
What Rooney needs to do is not try to become a Xavi clone. He needs to stand alone as his own man, using his own traits to become the central midfielder that he is unquestionably capable of being. He is very different to Xavi, and whilst Xavi has been doing it for more than a decade, Rooney has had a mere two matches. He has the talent. When he proves that he can make the role his own, then the question will be asked of Sir Alex Ferguson to adapt the team around his talents.
At the moment, it appears that what the player feels is right, clashes with how the team plays best. And that is something that will need to be addressed, sooner rather than later, especially with Manchester City assault on United’s Premier League crown. Rooney as a central midfielder is very much in it’s infancy. But it needs to flourish a lot sooner than it can have ever been expected – if it is to become a permanent move – unless United may fall behind.