There have been many reasons for Manchester United’s improved form over the last month and one of the reasons that have been put forward more than most is Wayne Rooney’s return to a striking role.
However the more important aspect seems to be his (and Louis Van Gaal’s) interpretation of the position. Without even looking at things like statistics and heatmaps, Rooney is playing noticeably higher up the pitch. The difference between now and just a couple of months ago, when Radamel Falcao and Robin Van Persie were offering nothing in behind, is like night and day. Some have said that the latter two were unfortunate to be playing at a time when the service to them wasn’t great; however the movement of a striker can often dictate the chances created.
Playing on the shoulder of the last man forces defenders back, which helps every aspect of the team. Mata and Herrera get that extra bit of space to weave their magic in between the lines; Carrick gets a split second more time on the ball as opposition midfielders have to drop back, and the defenders feel more comfortable maintaining a high line. This simply wasn’t happening when Falcao and Van Persie were up front.
Rooney is clearly the only one of United’s senior strikers with the mobility and energy to play that way – but as Gary Neville has touched on, it was difficult to ever imagine him being able to play like this. He has always been the type of striker who comes deep towards the play – one of the reasons his partnership with Van Persie struggled last year was the unwillingness of either to stretch the opposition. Yet now he is playing on the shoulder more than he’s ever done before, certainly in recent times.
Rooney has a reputation as a “street footballer” – in other words someone who is all action and likes to be involved a lot in the game. This is what motivates his tendency to drop deep. Remaining high would see him have fewer touches as strikers generally have fewer on average than other outfield players. The change in Rooney’s style then, has required great discipline on his part to overcome his natural tendency.
In the game against City for example he only had 28 touches of the ball, but constantly occupied City’s central defenders, therefore creating space behind him, in particular for Herrera and Marouane Fellaini. This illustrates a new maturity in his play under Van Gaal.
It’s already well documented that the Dutchman is more structured and specific than anything most of the players will have been used to, and Rooney’s disciplined role as a Number 9 proves this. Credit must go to both player and manager for this.
So, now to those heat maps….
In March 2014, Rooney played as a ‘Number 9’ in the home fixture against Aston Villa. However his heat map shows a typical Rooney performance, dropping deep and drifting around the pitch.
Twelve months later, Rooney played in the same position, in the same fixture – but was much more focused on staying high, even against a Villa side which defended quite deep. Note how he only touched the ball once in his own half, compared to nine times in the game last year.
*In both fixtures Rooney didn’t play the full 90 minutes as a Number 9 – last season he was substituted on 64 minutes, while this season he moved into central midfield on 77 minutes. To give an accurate reading, the second heat map only shows his touches for those first 77 minutes.
All this allows Fellaini to make use of a deeper opposition defence by getting into the box more – if they weren’t getting pushed back by Rooney, the Belgian would find it a lot more difficult. Teams are now having to push a holding midfielder back onto Fellaini to help their full back out – this does actually reduce the impact he has, but on the flip side it leaves more space on the edge of the area, which is heaven for someone like Herrera.
The impact of Rooney here is very similar to what happened just over 4 years ago, when Javier Hernandez replaced Dimitar Berbatov in the first XI. All of a sudden United were transformed – the football was more fluid and key individuals like Rooney, Carrick and Giggs had an outstanding end to the season. A big part of this was unquestionably Hernandez’s incredible movement which had defenders on the back foot all game long.
One other Hernandez like habit Rooney displays is being caught offside. Although it’s not the best habit, it shows that he is always making those runs behind the centre backs. Last season he was caught by the flag 15 times in the League – right now, with six games to go, he has been caught 14 times. Now that might sound like being roughly similar, but you have to take into account that Rooney spent a huge chunk of this season in midfield.
A better comparison may be 2009/10, when he last played in a lone striker role consistently. That season, he was offside 29 times – had he spent the whole of this season playing where he is now, he would at the very least have matched that total and most likely have exceeded it.
It could be argued that the Lionel Messi effect has seen a shift towards centre forwards constantly coming deep and making things happen on the ball. While being one-dimensional certainly doesn’t work in the modern game, and elite strikers need to be able to bring others into play, you don’t need to be 40 yards from goal to do so. Defenders will almost always prefer a striker to be in front of and going away from them, rather than getting in behind them. Being a ‘focal point’, as Van Gaal calls it, often means staying up field. And right now, his skipper is the perfect focal point for this United side.
This piece was written by Nilesh Pandey. Follow him on twitter @NileshP7