TACTICAL THOUGHTS: WAYNE ROONEY

Should he stay or should he go? It seems amazing that people have been asking this question in recent months. Undoubtedly one of the best English players of recent years and arguably only one of two who could seriously lay claim to the tag of “world class”. This question would have seemed inconceivable only twelve months ago. But it is one to be addressed now that the player himself has submitted a transfer request, a request United have turned down. If we were pushed we would say that United should keep Wayne Rooney but only if he can be persuaded that it is in his own best interests to stay; his heart needs to be in it. The only scenario where we could envisage him leaving the club is one where a decision was taken to sell to release funds to strengthen in other areas. Is this necessary?

United do need to strengthen, but with a new TV deal and newly negotiated sponsorship deals it doesn’t appear that the club needs to release funds so desperately that they should countenance selling a player of Wayne’s standard.

Rooney has now been a United player for nine years, and throughout that time he has fulfilled a number of roles in the side. This flexibility is an asset, as is his seeming willingness to adapt. Sir Alex is a manager who has always craved flexibility in individual players and across his squad. We would imagine that David Moyes strategy would be similar, and this seems reason enough to keep the player, even if his other abilities were not so significant. The point is, they are.

Some people have pointed out that Rooney has at times been at odds with Sir Alex and the club. As fans looking from the outside, we can never be sure of the details or seriousness of these episodes, but clearly relations have been strained recently and all relationships have their ups and downs in football as in life. At other times, though, relationships have been better.

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Could it be that Rooney is now a victim of his own challenge to the club a couple of years ago to sign other players of real quality? Now those players are in place he is no longer top dog (the theory goes) and Sir Alex and the club doesn’t forget. We think this is a mis-reading of the situation. Rooney’s challenge was more a statement of his own personal ambition for the future. This is a mentality the club would admire and value, rather than one which would result in the bearing of a grudge and a need to exact future revenge. United are unlikely to get rid of a player based upon such a grudge. The club would only seek to move him on when it is in its own interests to do so.

The other side of the coin is the player’s view of his future. This has been questioned by many who have pointed to his recent omission for the second leg of the Champions League tie with Real Madrid. Would the player feel slighted by his absence from the side selected for this game, would he consider it an indication that he is no longer the main man, no longer first choice in the strongest eleven? This is a possible reading of the situation, but Rooney will be aware that Sir Alex picked sides he considers suited to countering particular opponents. The days of a settled first choice or strongest eleven are long gone. Sir Alex didn’t think this way, and after nine years at the club Rooney will know this.

Looking at Wayne Rooney’s strengths as a player his versatility may well have worked against him over his time at United. He has been deployed in a variety of roles.

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2004 – 2006 – When he first joined the club Wayne was deployed as a classic second striker playing off Ruud van Nistelrooy. The team play was designed to maximise the Dutchman’s goal threat, but Rooney still contributed a creditable 17 and 19 goals in his first two seasons at the club.

2006 – 2009 – This was the Ronaldo era and now the team tactical approach was designed to maximise his threat. Rooney was deployed as a wide attacker on the left. This was the period of great fluidity at United, but Rooney tended to be the more static of all the United forwards, drawing players to him and making space for others, most notably Ronaldo. Ironically Rooney’s own goals return went up slightly.

2009 – 2011 – After Ronaldo left, Rooney became the main man and moved back to a more central role as a second striker, now playing off Dimitar Berbatov. Rooney and Berbatov did much interchanging and having adapted to this role he recorded what is to date a career best goals return of 34 goals in 44 appearances in 2009-10 season. (He repeated this feat in 2011-12).

2011 – 2013 – Around 2011 Rooney’s game changed subtly. Now he dropped deeper to play a role closer to a classic number 10. he became a deep lying playmaker forward, often starting high but running deep to collect passes from the more static Carrick and turning to then move forward and direct the thrust of the attack. The question was whether he liked that role, because in the middle of the 2010-11 season he submitted his first transfer request. That year saw Rooney record his lowest goal return to date: 16 goals. He has repeated the same tally this year, and once again put in a transfer request.

This last season has perhaps been the player’s most difficult at the club. He has had a poor year by his own standards. At times he has looked out of condition and it is clear that in recent months his head has not been in the right place. No doubt frustrated by his exclusion from the starting eleven in key games and the emergence of Kagawa as an alternative deep lying forward playing between the lines, Rooney has been played out of position in midfield. Is this his future if he stays at the club?

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To date this experiment has only been a partial success. He is naturally attack minded and would need to learn the defensive side of the midfielder’s craft to excel in this position. When he has been asked to show defensive discipline when playing as a forward he has not always done so, for club or country. In fact, his exclusion from the starting eleven for the second leg game against Real Madrid may have been as a direct consequence of this aspect of his performance in the first leg.

Looking at Rooney’s statistics again across his career his strength is obviously as an attacker. He has played in 400 games for United and scored 197 goals. Considering the many and varied roles he has played for the club, this tells its own story. Has Rooney been used as a high quality utility player? Perhaps this is overstating things, but it seems that he has generally been asked to adapt to the needs of the team rather than the team adapt to his needs. His goal return is remarkable and demonstrates just how good he can be. The fact that his poorer seasons have coincided with the years when he has submitted a transfer request also tell a story. It would appear that Wayne’s state of mind and a need to feel loved is vital to his ability to hit top form. Despite their history, maybe Wayne just needs reassurance from David Moyes, time for a cuddle?

Alternatively maybe it is time for Rooney to move on, but he would want to move to a top club and should ask himself whether if he did so, would any of the clubs being talked about as a destination build their team around him?