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If you were to show an extra-terrestrial the above clip of Wayne Rooney‘s blockbusting explosion onto the English football scene in 2002, my guess is their first response would be: ‘What on Earth is this strange game?’
Beyond that, upon learning that this prematurely balding stout bulldog of a boy is now flirting with a long stay in central midfield, the reaction would most likely be surprise. ‘What, him? That pacey young lad with thoughts only to attack?’
Yes. Or at least – that used to be the case.
Watch a game involving Rooney now and you will find a player of utmost intelligence at both ends of the field, with a keen eye for a raking 30-yard pass just as much as a 30-yard screamer akin to the one above. He’s a workhorse, fuelled by his surprising pace (for a man of only 5ft 9in) and irrepressible love for football.
Above all, he plays far deeper than he seemingly ever intended, or was destined to. Take a look at the Everton goal above again. Is it just me that can imagine, were he in the same situation but at his current age (29), he would’ve slipped a through ball into the path of the number 9, Kevin Campbell?
Because Rooney loves an assist nowadays, almost as much as a goal. The goals still come, make no mistake – he is bearing down on Alan Shearer’s record 260 league goals with an unnerving consistency – but his all round play has become as much servant as it is assassin. Look back as recently as Boxing Day, to his floating ball to Robin van Persie who headed home from close range into the Newcastle net. The ball was reminiscent of Beckham, Carrick, Gerrard… Not Shearer, Lineker or Owen.
Since Rooney hopped over Merseyside to Manchester United in 2004, he has been utilised in a number of different roles, positions and systems. He enjoyed a successful induction as a second striker to Ruud van Nistlerooy for a season or two, before cowering beneath the shadow of an emerging Cristiano Ronaldo between 2007 and 2009.
Upon Ronaldo’s departure in the summer of 2009, Rooney finally became a fully-fledged out-and-out striker, banging in 34 goals in 44 appearances in what has become a seminal season for the Englishman.
From then on, in stepped Dimitar Berbatov to underwhelmingly snatch the coveted role from Wayne and, in turn, Robin van Persie in 2012.
In that period since 2010, partly thanks to a dodgy 2010/11 season where his World Cup hangover seemed to last a bit longer than most, Rooney began to shuffle deeper and deeper down the field, graciously giving up his post to the big money signings. By the time Sir Alex Ferguson departed in 2013, the legendary Scot manager had utilised Rooney in so many different areas – areas opposed to his preferred position as striker – that Wayne simply had been forced to develop supplemental qualities in defence and distribution. Who can forget Rooney’s contract hissy-fits in 2012 and 2013, undoubtedly down to his continued use on the left of midfield, or even his lack of use altogether.
Since the departure of Paul Scholes, and by that I mean his youth rather than his footballing services altogether, there has been a huge hole in Manchester United’s midfield that has begged to be filled with passing vision and goals. Sir Alex never truly employed Rooney’s potential as a Scholes’ successor but he certainly honed his team-playing nature; his eye for a pass, an assist and a goal that were forced through his consistent misuse everywhere but up-front. He developed skills which Louis van Gaal has now ingeniously recognised can be merged to form a formidable midfield all-rounder, not just goalscorer.
All hail van Gaal with his mad European tactical genius, who has managed to not only model Ashley Young as Patrice Evra, but has chiselled a young Paul Scholes from the mis-handled raw chunk of box-to-box talent that was Wayne Rooney.
But by no means credit him for the foundations to the idea. That, without doubt, must be awarded as criticism to Sir Alex for his bad management of Rooney for over half a decade.