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Wayne Rooney’s evolving roles for England and Manchester United
There is, it seems, an increasingly large subset of the English media devoted entirely to indignant judgments on Wayne Rooney’s proper role for Manchester United and the England national team. Jamie Carragher, Paul Ince, Gary Neville, Peter Shilton, Stan Collymore, Paul Scholes, Chris Sutton, and Peter Schmeichel (to name but a few) have all weighed in on the debate in their post-retirement roles of armchair analysts.
The English striker has become a lightning rod of opinions within the media, debates over his role often encompassing broader visions for England’s national team setup.
At the age of thirty, Rooney’s role within United and England — and, importantly, how it has been portrayed by the media — has gone through numerous phases and is once again being redefined with new leadership at Old Trafford and Wembley.
Rooney first broke out onto the scene as a force of nature, an explosive, powerful, and sometimes erratic teenager. With a bullish temperament and dogged work ethic, he flourished in a role just behind the center-forward that allowed him to be a creator as well as a goalscorer. His maturity was called into question after his infamous stamp on Cristiano Ronaldo in the wake of the 2006 World Cup, but at least he was an exciting figure.
He has since mellowed, but lost a key glint of the scorching acceleration that made him so breathtaking as a teenager in the process. He is now less dazzling and awe-inspiring on the ball, but other aspects of his playing style have become enhanced: he is tactically more disciplined and has better vision. Indeed, it was during Ferguson’s final four or five years in charge of United, when he began the process of dropping into an attacking midfield role that were Rooney’s most productive years to date.
And while he has had more than his fair share of cracking strikes and sublime finishes in recent seasons, he has lost an element of pace and power that made him a natural striker. These days, he seems to be huffing and puffing less because he is everywhere at once and more because he can never be as active as he once was.
Naturally, that has correlated with a shift into a deeper midfield role for England and United that lets younger players shine up front. This process began under Ferguson around 2012 and the Scottish manager was widely lauded for the tactical switch at the time. Rooney himself tweeted: “Really enjoying my new midfield role, always involved,” after one victory over Newcastle United.
The trend continued under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, though the new managers were met with much more resistance from the media, especially as the lack of striking partners meant that Rooney was still playing in a more traditional center-forward role for England.
With the emergence of a new wave of England strikers in Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, and Jamie Vardy, however, Rooney has been able to resume this transition.
For England, new manager Sam Allardyce has given Rooney complete freedom to operate wherever he most feels comfortable. “It’s not for me to say where he’s going to play,” Allardyce remarked following England’s World Cup Qualifier against Slovakia (which is an odd statement in itself, but that’s another story). “It’s up to me to ask whether he’s doing well in that position and contributing.”
Up to his own devices, Rooney tucked into a deeper role than ever against Slovakia and made it evident that midfield is where he now feels most comfortable, which seems natural for an aging striker.
However, new United gaffer Jose Mourinho has once again brought the debate to the forefront, insisting that he doesn’t view Rooney as a midfielder. “Maybe he’s not a striker any more,” said the Portuguese manager when he took over the United job, per the Telegraph. “Maybe he is not a No 9 anymore but he will never, with me, be a No 6. He will never be 50 meters from the goal. For me, he will be a No 9 or No 10 or 9½, but with me, he will never be a No 6 or even a No 8.”
In doing so, he has set the challenge for Rooney to continue to contribute up front in the hopes that he can rejuvenate a career that has been on the downhill for a few years. However, his comments have also reopened a tiresome old debate over whether Rooney is contributing “enough” up front in a midfield role.
The problem is that enough is a subjective term. Will he ever be as fruitful as he once was, or once promised to be? No. Will playing further forward help? Probably not.
Rooney, meanwhile, spoke somewhat bemusedly of the debate. Speaking to Sky Sports, the Manchester United captain said: “I’ve done it my whole career and suddenly it’s big news. It’s not a big thing and I think there’s a big overreaction to it.”
Homepage photo credit: Ben Sutherland [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons