Wayne Rooney at a career crossroads - even as the landmarks keep coming
A win in the FA Cup final would complete the set of domestic medals for Wayne Rooney, but Richard Jolly says his position and status for club and country has never been more in doubt.
Wayne Rooney is acquiring accolades by the year. In 2014, he was granted the captaincy of Manchester United and England; 2015 yielded his national’s team scoring record; by the time 2016 ends he ought to have the status of the most prolific player in United’s history plus, belatedly, that of an FA Cup winner, should Crystal Palace be overcome at Wembley. If so, and like every United skipper since Ray Wilkins, he will get his hands on silverware. In the process, he will complete a full set of domestic medals.
Gaps on his CV are being addressed, further distinctions and decorations secured. When Rooney eventually retires, this may appear seamless progress, annual achievements in a footballing life full of landmarks. What such a list may not show is a career at a crossroads.
Rooney will line up in midfield on Saturday. It has prompted talk of a permanent shift into a withdrawn role. Yet if he is going backwards, he is also going around in circles. The notion of Rooney as a midfielder in the making has been around for years. When United last clinched the Premier League title, they did so in style. Rooney’s 40-yard pass against Aston Villa was brilliantly volleyed in by Robin van Persie, a Paul Scholes-style ball bringing a Marco van Basten-esque finish. Rooney was playing in midfield then. That was 2013.
Three years on, the only change is in Rooney’s attitude; he considered leaving United because of his dislike for the deeper berth then, whereas now he is more willing to accept a future there. Otherwise, the debate has barely progressed. Rooney, arguably, has regressed. Certainly he has not evolved as a footballer. Instead, he is a statistical colossus and a growing problem. Is he striker, winger, midfielder or substitute, crowbarred in because he has the captaincy or an indispensable part of the United and England sides in his own right?
Certainly the enfant terrible has progressed to become his managers’ trusted lieutenant. He is the tearaway turned insider, affording him privileges, in Louis van Gaal’s word, when it comes to selection. The decision that Rooney starts prompts a further question: where? The Dutchman spent much of his maiden year in England using Rooney in midfield before discovering a preferred formula with him in attack. His sophomore season has brought a role reversal. The 30-year-old has been displaced from the forward line. Marcus Rashford’s emergence leaves him a man in search of a position. Yet even when the 18-year-old remained an unknown, it was evident he was a stopgap solution. Van Gaal’s frequent mentions of his wish for speed and creativity in attack illustrate that the slowing Rooney is not his ideal striker.
It was an uneasy, unsuccessful compromise for both. Rooney represented a blunt spearhead to a blunt side. United mustered their lowest tally of league goals for almost three decades, Rooney, with eight, his fewest since 2003-04. Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane both got three times as many. Form horses are more compelling choices for England in attack now. Kane is Roy Hodgson’s best all-round striker, Vardy has the searing pace to torment defenders, Daniel Sturridge the clinical finishing ability, Rashford the momentum of youth.
It has prompted suggestions that England can incorporate Rooney as a No. 10. Without even delving too deeply into his defensive deficiencies, exposed by Germany in 2010, Barcelona in 2011 and Italy in 2012, that ignores the reality that Dele Alli is now England’s most dynamic, most exuberant option, and one who enjoys genuine chemistry with Kane. Hodgson’s strongest side may feature two strikers and a midfield diamond, but Alli is best-equipped to operate at its tip. If Rooney does, Alli is affected.
England manager Roy Hodgson and Wayne RooneyAFP
The other suggestion is that Rooney revisits his past to operate as a raiding winger. The man who knocked Sir Bobby Charlton off his perch would reinvented as the deputy Danny Welbeck. It is distinctly odd, and not just because Hodgson’s current pool of players, with Raheem Sterling out of form, are not particularly suited to a 4-3-3 formation. Rooney has been a selfless, hard-running winger in his time, but that time was 2009, when Cristiano Ronaldo led United’s line. By 2014, when he played on the left for England against Italy, allowing Sterling to operate as the No. 10, it was a reason why Italy prospered on their right flank.
There is simply no obvious way of accommodating him in the England side. It is easier to slot him into United’s dysfunctional midfield, given the various shortcomings of Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini in a Van Gaal team, but his terrific display against Bournemouth – scoring one goal, creating two more – is not a guarantee of future excellence. Comparisons with Scholes have abounded over the years, but he has never had the older man’s passing accuracy. His touch remains erratic. He has never brought consistency in the centre of the pitch.
The chances are that Hodgson’s loyalty and Rooney’s dressing-room influence will grant him a reprieve. He may be picked on reputation. But the reality is that Rooney, long a source of difficulties to opponents, now presents them to his managers as they wonder how, where and even if to use him. Rooney could be reinvented or be could be a record-holding reserve.