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Posted on April 25, 2011
Wayne Rooney: a more complete player now, despite his lack of goals this season? Photograph: Scott Heppell/AP
Last season, Wayne Rooney scored a lot of goals. A lot of people got very excited. It ruined England’s World Cup hopes, rendered Dimitar Berbatov largely redundant and left Manchester United so one-dimensional that when he was injured against Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-final, their season withered and they won only the Carling Cup. But it was a lot of goals – 34 in 44 games – and they won him the PFA and Football Writers’ Player of the Year awards.
This season, after a poor start, Rooney is back to doing what he used to in his first five seasons at United. He drops deep off Javier Hernández, he links with the midfield, he sometimes goes back beyond the midfield. A lot of defenders admit to being frustrated strikers; with Rooney, particularly when he plays wide, you get the sense at times that he is a frustrated full-back.
Despite his recent revival, few people would claim that Rooney has had a great 2010-11 season. But it’s worth pointing out that from a purely attacking point of view, Rooney has proportionally been directly involved in as many goals this season as he was last: last season he played 2,723 minutes in the Premier League, scoring 26 goals and claiming three assists. This season, in 1,950 minutes, he has scored 10 and made 11 assists. To put it another way, he scored or assisted a goal every 93 minutes and 54 seconds last season and every 92 minutes and 52 seconds this.
What sets Rooney apart, though, are his defensive qualities. There are those who scorn him, who would deny him his position among the best players in the world, precisely because of that side of his game. They would prefer their creators to be twinkle-toed waifs like Lionel Messi and Luka Modric, matinee idols like Cristiano Ronaldo and Francisco Totti, or brooding artists like Zinedine Zidane or Gheorghe Hagi. Balding, barrel-chested scrappers don’t fit the template, and so Rooney with his overt energy and bubbling temper is seen as a lesser example of the type.
Rooney’s old-fashioned relationship with Hernández …
What Rooney offers, though, is something a little unusual. In many ways his partnership with Hernández is old-fashioned, the archetypal creator-quick man relationship of Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush, Peter Beardsley and Gary Lineker, Eric Gates and Marco Gabbiadini, Dennis Bergkamp and Nicolas Anelka, Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole. The creator finds space and looks to slip balls behind the opposing back line for the quick man to run on to. It’s hard to defend against because if a defence sits deep to deny the quick man space behind it to attack, that leaves space behind the midfield for the creator to exploit. Similarly if the defence squeezes up to stifle the creator, it becomes vulnerable to balls in behind it for the quick man.
That was evident even when Rooney played with Michael Owen for England. They didn’t enjoy the easiest relationship – in 29 games together one provided a direct assist for the other only once – but it was their combination that inspired the run to the quarter-final of Euro 2004, the last time England looked remotely like winning a major tournament. In the three-and-a-quarter games England played in Portugal before Rooney was injured, the team scored 10 goals. An offensive midfield helped – David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes – but the difficulties posed by the front two helped pull defenders out of position.
As Jonny Evans pointed out on Saturday, it’s easy to underestimate Hernández, to see him as nothing more than a roadrunner who can finish – a “peep-peep… gol!” player as an Argentinian journalist once scornfully described Owen – but he’s actually “quite a strong lad with a great jump” and one, moreover, who is tireless and imaginative in his movement. Most of the great quick men, of course, have had more than pace to their game, and most enjoyed the sort of intuitive understanding with their creator that Hernández and Rooney seem to be developing (even if the suspicion remains that Hernández was one of the cut-price signings Rooney was complaining about during his contract negotiations last autumn).
… with a modern twist
But Rooney offers much more than the traditional creator. As noted here two seasons ago, he and Park Ji-sung both had a valuable role playing wide in blocking in the opposing full-back. Rooney is now reproducing that in a more central role.
Compare, for instance, Rooney’s heat map in the away leg of United’s quarter-final with that of Raúl for Schalke away to Internazionale in their quarter-final (you’ll need to click on the player’s name or number to see the heat map). Raúl was also nominally playing as the second striker in a 4-4-2, but his role was far more advanced than Rooney.
What is even more striking is to compare Rooney’s position with that of Mesut Ozil away at Tottenham in Real Madrid’s quarter-final. Ozil was playing in the centre of the attacking trident in a 4-2-3-1; a role usually regarded as that of an attacking midfielder rather than a forward. It’s noticeable how often he drifted right to cover Cristiano Ronaldo, but also that his average position was far more advanced than that of Rooney; Opta stats show that Rooney has an 88% tackle success rate this season as opposed to Ozil’s 70%. If Rooney is coming back deeper than an acknowledged trequartista, what does that make him?
For the most advanced centre-forward to have a role in closing down the opposition is familiar. Ian Rush was a master at it in a largely conventional sense. But there are examples of centre-forwards behind used as advanced ball-winners, effectively providing space for more creative players behind them. Serginho, the much-maligned Brazil centre-forward of 1982, is perhaps the most controversial example, while Stephane Guivarc’h did something similar for France in 1998, while Andrea Pirlo’s reinvention as a deep-lying regista at Milan owed at least something to the ball-winning Andriy Shevchenko did in front of him.
Rooney has begun to fulfil a similar function playing off a central forward, something United have desperately needed in the absence through injury of Darren Fletcher and Owen Hargreaves. An orthodox 4-4-2 leaves a side open in midfield; even when dominating games chances will be conceded which, with the away goals rule, can be calamitous, as United found against Borussia Dortmund in 1997 and Monaco in 1998 (there is an odd sense in which in a home knockout game in Europe, creating, say, six chances and conceding none is preferable to creating 18 and conceding three).
With Rooney as the second striker, though, the system is far from an orthodox 4-4-2. It may be recorded as a 4-4-1-1, but the deeper striker often drops so deep as to play as a midfielder. Against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, particularly in the first half before fatigue set in, the holders Pepe and Sami Khedira were often Real Madrid’s most advanced midfielders, so desperate was José Mourinho to have his side press high up the pitch, winning the ball back early and disrupting Barça’s rhythm. In a strange way, the roles of Rooney and Pepe or Khedira have merged: the one starting high, looking to win the ball back and tracking deep; the other two starting deep and pressing high as they look to win the ball back.
For United, Rooney’s role means they effectively have an auxiliary midfielder, a third central man who helps plug the gaps that can emerge in an orthodox 4-4-2. Having somebody with his aggression chasing back also gives United a ball-winner in a central midfield that would otherwise comprise merely Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick, both superb at keeping and using the ball, but rather less adept at winning it back.
Rooney will not score as many goals this season as he did last. He barely played for the first half the season. And yet it may be that for all the praise showered on him last year, for all the awards he won, it is this season, at least over the past couple of months, when he has been the more effective player. Goals, after all, aren’t everything.