Roles reversed for Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov
At first glance it was a fairly simple goal. A deep cross by Patrice Evra was aimed towards a crowd of expectant players but as Darren Fletcher flung himself towards it, everybody thought it was going to be his ball. His leap was imperious but the cross agonisingly evaded his contact and fell – like a bouquet of flowers – onto the head of Wayne Rooney who was lurking behind him.
The England striker had just been going through a bad patch of goalscoring form – scoring only two goals this season, both of which had come from the penalty spot – and the nearly moments would have flashed before his eyes. But with an instinctive movement, Rooney stuck out his head out and the ball did the rest. It trickled slowly into the bottom corner to give Manchester United a 1-0 lead over West Bromwich Albion – a game they would go on to win 2-1 – but perhaps just as significantly, gave Wayne Rooney his first goal of the season from open play.
Rooney wheeled away in obvious delight and was instantly mobbed by his team-mates who would have felt his every struggle. This was a player who they would have felt had been unfairly treated and harshly scrutinised over the testing period. England dramatically crashed out of the World Cup and Rooney, who had carried the nation’s hopes, was seen as the scapegoat. Worse was still to follow as revelations about his private life seriously affected his psychology and he is seemingly still recovering from the events.
In March last year, Rooney was on top of the world, scoring over 30 goals and almost single-handedly had shot Manchester United to the top of the Premier League that it’s hard to envisage just how he could have reached his current plight. But putting aside confidence and personal issues for a moment – issues which have evidently affected his performance – changes to his role tactically may have also had an effect on his impact so far this season.
Last season, Wayne Rooney was deployed in a more orthodox striking role as United looked to take advantage of his all-round play in a 4-5-1 formation and it’s safe to say the system was a success as Rooney plundered an impressive 34 goals in all competitions. But still recovering from injuries at the start of the season and Dimitar Berbatov’s improvement from the last, Sir Alex Ferguson has decided to tweak his team’s style. Rooney now plays behind Berbatov – the pair effectively switching roles to the ones they played last season if they were to partner each other in a 4-4-2. In this position, Rooney is forced to fend off the goalscoring instincts he gained last season and balance that off, with the need to drop off. Berbatov is given more license to thrill and if mistakes are made, better higher up than in the middle of the pitch.
Sir Alex, however, may feel Rooney is best to play in this role as opposed to Berbatov because of his energy. The 4-4-2 is difficult to play in the modern game and especially so if the team plays with two wingers as Manchester United do. That means the centre of midfield is prone to being outnumbered and therefore to find the balance, the team must press and one of the strikers drop off to make a 4-4-1-1 in the defensive phase. Berbatov had normally played this role but has been on the receiving end of fans brunt due to his languid style and economy of movement. Carlos Tevez played the role with much zest to ensure United weren’t overrun in midfield and Sir Alex feels Rooney can do the same. It is Tevez, ironically, who describes Rooney’s “new” role best when comparing his position at Manchester City to the one he played at Old Trafford.
“I am playing now as a free striker,” says Tevez. “This is my position. When I first joined Manchester City, I was not 100 per cent fit. Now I go on to the pitch and I am physically fit and mentally strong. I say to myself, “you have to win the game for City”. In my head, before the game, I think, “goals, goals, goals”. It’s 28 of them and still counting. I am now playing in the position I played in Argentina and Brazil and in the last 10 games for West Ham. At Manchester United, I was asked to defend more. It was a different responsibility.”
There is also another reason why Manchester United have played Rooney deeper. They have often been criticised for lacking creativity and the striker’s street-like craft is felt can create chances for others while his link up play is perhaps better than anyone else in the “hole”. Indeed, in October, Sir Alex Ferguson was willing to allow his striker to play a qualifier for England against Montenegro despite returning from injury, because he felt it would allow Rooney to rediscover his form in the second striker role. Slowly, the striker has started to find his feet in the role he first played when he burst on to the scene and the recent match against Blackburn displayed the full extent of his playmaking ability. Rooney was everywhere and made 107 attempted passes; a phenomenal feat for a striker and finally showed his understanding of the zone between midfield and attack. This season Wayne Rooney has made seven assists; two more than the whole of last season and ninth overall in the league’s assists chart. Luis Nani stands at the top with 11 assists.
Berbatov was also in fine form in that same game, scoring five goals and his goal tally of 14 this season is similarly impressive. The adaptation he has had to make should not be sniffed at and with his ability to drop deep and roam around as a “false 9” it is thought he can bring others into play. It is hoped Rooney can particularly benefit because of his powerful runs and movement in the final third.
Of course we shouldn’t forget the effect Antonio Valencia had on the team with his availability, allowing the team to switch between a 4-5-1 and a 4-4-2 but his absence makes it difficult to play the former with the same dynamism. Ryan Giggs fitness issues meant we probably have seen less of the 4-5-1 this season as we may have because it left Luis Nani as the only true winger that could be used.
Manchester United may not have hit top form yet, just as Rooney is yet to but they are still unbeaten and game by game, are showing they are getting better. For Sir Alex Ferguson, it is not a case of tweaking the formation unnecessarily. Every team has to evolve and find new solutions and for United, it is hoped the reversed roles of Berbatov and Rooney can make them more dynamic than ever, and hopefully fire them to league and cup glory.