Despite the goals, Wayne Rooney isn’t Manchester United’s player of the season
Without a fuss in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Swansea City, Wayne Rooney strolled off, looking resigned, and accepted his substitution. Manchester United were bringing on Dimitar Berbatov for the last 10 minutes of a game that had already been won and just as Rooney was coming off, he received a warm ovation. United fans, in the last league game at Old Trafford this season, had acknowledged his efforts in this campaign — he did score 26 goals from 33 in Premier League games, after all. That statistic, in isolation, is good enough for some to go far enough to say the forward has been United’s best player this season.
But Rooney has a lot to answer for. He is not just their chief goal-getter; but also their playmaker. It is partly true that United rely on Rooney too much for his own good; indeed, he has only really fulfilled his role as the goalscorer, and yet not much else. This season, it’s been a bit of both and neither, played everywhere and nowhere; given the target of 40 goals and yet, at the same time, (probably) told create goals for others, too. You should never read too much into number of assists because they’re the most devilish and worst-behaved of statistics (well, after, pass completion rates, which is like a youth offender) but he’s only managed four this season compared to last year’s 11, at least giving an impression of his general profligacy.
This is what I had thought and seen before looking at the numbers (which should only be used to back up an observation); that he’s been far too wasteful and negligent than he’s ever been, especially after the most impressive second halves to a season you’ll ever see in the previous campaign; where Rooney forgot all that happened in the first and shrugged off not only a lengthy run of bad form caused partly by injury, but the pressure exerted by those not interested in football, but by what was on the front page of The Daily Star. Then, even with a ludicrous swearing ban which served in keeping up appearances, he was able to balance creating and scoring goals — against Barcelona in the Champions League final, he looked the only player who could turn it around from what may have seemed a perilous position. It was a fine spell that Sir Alex may or may not have tried to take advantage of — logically, I would say — but it hasn’t quite worked.
Is it possible to be your side’s most important player and yet not their best performing one? It seems so in Rooney’s case. He seems to be used as a goalscoring playmaker, but Diego Maradona he is not, which at least goes to show the Pelé comparisons (‘The White Pelé’) are a little more suitable. In simple terms, being a goalscorer means you have to be generally central and so your freedom is restricted — but freedom is surely what you need as a playmaker, which Rooney doesn’t always get. He’s expected not only to start attacks, but finish them, too.
Too often this season, when Rooney has tried to assume that playmaker role, he has played a bad pass for every good one, being far too negligent and careless and a bit of hindrance as United go forward. That, typically, followed by a strop or a sudden goal from the penalty spot. Which might then, therefore, indicate that it’s more than just a change in roles — that he’s most accustomed to one thing over another, rather than it being a choice. Perhaps Rooney needs to be deployed higher up the pitch and United sign an attacking midfielder that can alleviate the burden. Whatever the solution, what is clear is that this is not Rooney’s best season at the club, only a good one, despite what some say. It’s also worth pointing out that Sir Alex has been less reluctant to take him off than in seasons passed.
And in last Thursday’s Football Writers’ awards, he finished second behind Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, which is quite interesting, given the Dutchman has made a similar refinement to his game, albeit with more success (slightly, in the goal department) and (crucially) clarity. The margin between the two was roughly 100 votes and even with only about 250 in total anyway, was a still lot less than it perhaps should have been. Harsh? Yes. But that’s the beauty of value judgements — they’re not at all beautiful and nobody wants to agree, or, indeed, even hear it. But there were other players who deserved to be runners up. Furthermore, while the awards might suggest otherwise, he hasn’t even been United’s best player this season, or their second best, or even their third*.
Thankfully, Rooney recognises this. After he had scored two in April’s 4-0 win over Aston Villa, he accepted, post-match, that goals alone do not tell a story: “It was nice to score two goals but I didn’t think my performance was good enough. The rest of my play wasn’t great. I am disappointed with that and I will be working hard to put it right.” Given the amount of times Rooney has been written off without any real basis, you can’t doubt he will at least try to find a solution, if, indeed, he is still a Manchester United player next year.
*For the record, and just for a bit of fun, this is my Top 5 this season in order (feel free to share your own below): Michael Carrick, Jonny Evans, Rio Ferdinand, Antonio Valencia, Wayne Rooney. (Though Danny Welbeck and Paul Scholes have claims.)