England great, soon to be his club’s record goalscorer but is Wayne Rooney what United need? Louis Van Gaal’s assertion that he signed Anthony Martial for the next Manchester United manager is puzzling.
It’s not just the fact that United have only scored three times in their first four league games, nor the fact they needed a ready-made replacement rather than a youngster that make the statement sound odd. Rather, it is the fact that United’s main striker, the man whose return should be north of 20 goals a season in the manager’s plans, has been poor for the last three seasons when donning his club shirt.
Scapegoating is as popular an exercise in football as players handing in a transfer request and some would feel, perhaps justifiably, that Rooney should not be shouldering the blame for United’s paltry return in front of goal so far. After all, the service provided to the 29-year-old has left a lot to be desired and he proved against Club Brugge he can still score goals.
However, his struggles in the first four league games of the season, and indeed in the last three campaigns, have deeper roots than a momentarily blip.
It might seem harsh to single out Rooney for criticism when his struggles are not entirely his fault and only a couple of days after he became England’s most prolific goalscorer of all times, but his international career offers a insightful explanation on his recent problems for United.
Rooney has thrived against international teams of good but not world class calibre and while it would be wrong to play down his goalscoring record for England, for after all a player can only score against the teams he faces, his exploits in a Three Lions shirt have not been translated at club level.
Ironically for a man who allegedly was upset by Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to make him play second fiddle to Robin Van Persie, while Rooney can shoulder England’s attacking expectations, he can no longer be United’s main man up-front. Or, at the very least, he can no longer fulfil the role on his own.
Of course, Rooney’s finest hour in terms of goals scored came when Ferguson deployed him largely as lone striker during the 2009-10 season, when United were an injured ankle away from winning the league and potentially reaching a Champions League final – Bayern disposed of a rather average in the semi-final after knocking United out.
That, however, was a different Rooney. Younger, fitter and still playing with the youthful ebullience that had characterised him since he burst onto the scene, Rooney looked set to take over the mantle Cristiano Ronaldo had left behind him.
Crucially, however, that was a different United.
Where Van Gaal’s teams dominate possession and seldom counter attack, under Ferguson United’s approach allowed them to stretch defences more often than not, thus opening spaces Rooney thrived in. Both systems have their pros and cons, but while Rooney fitted the latter brilliantly, it seems beyond him to adapt to the former.
Furthermore, for a player of his calibre, Rooney’s first touch is appalling, which makes the prospect of deploying him at number 10 rather unappealing, particularly given United have much better options in that area of the pitch, such as Juan Mata and Ander Herrera.
Under Roy Hodgson, England have seldom played attacking football and yet, be it because of the somewhat inferior quality of most of the teams they tend to face or because he is not required to deliver on a weekly basis, Rooney has emerged as a key component for the team, a role he never quite made his own at United.
He will soon have the title of United’s record goalscorer to go along his impressive tally for England, although numbers are unlikely to win him the support of those who still have not forgiven the fiasco surrounding his transfer requests.
Records speak for themselves and many would argue that fans should embrace what they have rather than fret about what lies behind their reach but with Rooney one can’t help wondering what it could have been.
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