For Rooney to find his form, he needs to become the main striker
All around Europe, the football grounds were buzzing with the talk of one subject; Wayne Rooney. The precocious teenager had set the continent alight with a bullish showing at Euro 2004, scoring four goals before injury ruled him out of the rest of the tournament and there was an intrigue of whether he could sustain those levels in football’s premier club competition. He did. And, boy, what an impact he made. A hat-trick on his Manchester United debut – a 6-2 thrashing of Fenerbahce at Old Trafford in the Champions League– confirmed his status as the world’s most exciting prospect.
Rooney at 18 was a rampaging force of nature. His stature may have been of a different build than the world’s best ever player but his athleticism, skill and power evoked memories of a fledgling Pele. Rooney had a swagger, a self-confidence and spontaneity about him that was backed up by the ability to deliver the audacious. Chips, volleys, long range passes and driving runs were a frequent sight whenever Rooney was on the pitch. He exertions then reminded me of Franz Beckenbauer’s analysis of Paul Gascoinge at Italia 90: “A true footballer from the streets, defiant, crafty and intrepid like the leader of a boy’s gang. Behind his angular forehead, he would cook up ideas you just didn’t expect.”
Nowadays, however, and Wayne Rooney plays a more refined game. Pushed up as the highest point of attack as opposed to a roaming split forward in his younger days, he scored an amazing 34 goals in all competitions last season. Playing as a more orthodox striker, Rooney bullied defenders and caused havoc at a higher zone on the pitch. He became more effective – a criticism levelled at him in previous seasons – so much so, that he felt that playing as a number 9 was now his most natural position. Most importantly perhaps though, Rooney said last season, that at 24 he enjoys the game more than when he was 18 – something which is surprising given that a general consensus will tell you that professionalism is growing in football and that more players treat the game as if were a job, rather than a hobby. And that leads us to an important point.
Given England’s failure in the World Cup and inability to produce anything of the imaginary, some people feel deploying Wayne Rooney as an “out-an-out” striker as they say, strips the Manchester United man of the combustible spontaneity and street footballer mannerisms he once had. It is a view that would most certainly be shared by perhaps England’s most gifted player, Paul Gascoinge. Speaking on Match of the Day 2 a couple of seasons ago, Gascoinge felt coaches would rather value discipline over individualism and it is arguably something Rooney has been a victim of. Certainly, when was the last time Rooney scored a goal outside the penalty area for United? And from an aesthetics point of view, why remove a player as talented as Rooney from having the ball as much by playing him that high up the pitch? Indeed, beset by personal problems, he is failing to find his form again playing behind Dimitar Barbatov in the position he once played in his early professional career.
But there is the other side of the argument and that is Rooney, before the off-field issues that will surely disappear and in time bring back his real form, has finally the recognition that he deserves on the world stage. He is once again feared, as he was in last season’s Champions League run where coaches were visibly wary of his impact. As far as the top coaches are concerned, playing Rooney as the main striker, he can bring his qualities where he can be of more effect. “Rooney is a super footballer and he isn’t even that old yet. He has really developed as a player, a great player who is always efficient with his actions,” said Bayern Munich manager Louis van Gaal. One goal this season is not an efficient return by any stretch of the imagination playing in the hole.
In a topsy-turvy week where he was reportedly contemplating signing for Manchester City, Rooney will perhaps be envious of his former strike partner, Carlos Tevez, who is playing in role he favours most. As the main forward, Tevez can bring all dimensions of his game to the team and the set-up at City is not too dissimilar to United’s last season – a 4-5-1 with wingers. In 2004, whilst the 18 year-old Rooney was making waves in the European Championships, Tevez played in a similar role to Rooney behind the forward for Argentina Under-23’s in the Olympics. These days, however, and the tactical changes of the modern game mean football is played in zones and that makes it difficult to play with two forwards in a 4-4-2. Rooney is not quite a second striker, as highlighted by his difficulties this season behind Berbatov and if you do deploy two up front, they must press intensely, something the Bulgarian is not famed for.
For England, it is slightly ironic that he plays as a second striker because it was Fabio Capello who suggested Rooney’s best position to be as the main striker as he was said to be playing “too far from the goal.” As the main striker, Rooney now perhaps evokes the same sentiments of Andriy Shevchenko, the striker the innovative Ukranian coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi said was the most all-rounded player. Former Serbia manager Radomir Antic feels similarly as said of Rooney: “I see a complete player. He does everything he has to on the pitch – play as the lead striker, drop into midfield to pick up the ball and go out wide to stop the opposition full-back going forward.” Slovenia coach Matjack Kek agrees: “He is more dangerous now than ever. He is somebody who makes the team win. That is the best thing you can say about a player.”
For Wayne Rooney to find his true form, as he puts his personal and contractual issues behind him it seems, he must plays as the focal point of the team. The position where he is most dangerous and has now made his own. “Playing up front every game, whether alone or with Dimitar Berbatov, I was an out-and-out striker. That was the big difference,” said Rooney. “For goalscoring it is a lot better. When you are playing in the hole, you are creating chances for others. I want to score as many goals as I can.”