Wayne Rooney is at another important crossroads in his Manchester United career. With the signing of Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie in the summer transfer window, Sir Alex Ferguson has presented himself with the problem of finding United a solution to playing all three attack-minded players at the same time as attempting to stabilise a shaky-looking midfield—one that was brutally exposed by Tottenham Hotspur in the first half of the match last weekend.
There have been other moments in Rooney’s career at United that have defined the player that he is: his immediate impact on his home European debut, scoring a hat-trick; the Ronaldo-Rooney spat in the 2008 World Cup, when on opposing international teams and the return to Manchester; overcoming United’s sale of Ronaldo and loss of Tevez; and his infamous transfer request and retraction two years ago.
This season, however, could be his biggest challenge yet.
Back in 2004, in an article for The New Statesman, the great football writer, Hunter Davies, questioned the constant talk of player potential and asked for us to take pride in the here and now. Of Rooney, he opined, “After one game...Rooney was hailed [by the media] as the greatest Man U player in the history of civilisation...while the experts have been advising caution.”
He went on to comment that Ferguson himself talked incessantly about Rooney’s potential, and how Arsene Wenger believed that Rooney would be at his best at the age of 25 or 26. But Davies thought that “the chances are that the best is NOW...” That was back in 2004, at the age of 18.
Wayne Rooney’s form has always fluctuated—much like his waistline. That he managed to return from a shortened summer break, which included an international tournament, seemingly overweight and unfit is testament to a lifestyle where he lets his hair down when “away from the office.” Rumours of bad diet, drinking and smoking all persist.
When Cristiano Ronaldo left United in 2009, Rooney stepped up to the challenge and became the fulcrum of the team’s play. His vision, tenacity and skill combining to bulldoze opponents. The team became too reliant on him; when his form dipped, so did United’s. When, at the end of the 2009-2010 season, he suffered injury, United’s Premier League and Champions League aspirations died. At that time, the lack of progress by United to strengthen the squad in certain areas prompted Rooney to request a transfer.
This season, with a reliance on old-stagers such as Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes to man the midfield, and with Rooney now at the age that it was predicted he would be at the peak of his powers, it would appear that United need an in-form Wayne Rooney more than ever.
However, with a combination of his perceived lack of fitness along with summer signings at Old Trafford that occupy territories on the pitch that he would usually patrol, maybe the time is ripe for a rethink as to where he should play.
As Hunter Davies had intimated back in 2004, Wayne Rooney may never fulfill the levels of expectation that were placed on him as a teenager. They were placed particularly high because of the manner in which he announced himself to the world of football. Rather than the best player in the world, rather than the “white Pele,” he may just be a very, very good player, one that we should be grateful to witness play the game.
His vision, passing and awareness remain excellent, his will to win strong. So then, again, maybe it is unfair to write him off. The various challenges mentioned earlier were all overcome—Wayne thrives on adversity and he will be chomping at the bit to prove the naysayers wrong. Still only 26, much of his career still stretches before him.
During last week’s Capital One League Cup game against Newcastle, he was deployed deeper than usual and had some success pulling the strings from midfield rather than leading the line.
With Manchester United in desperate need to bolster that ageing area of the team, perhaps Sir Alex was contemplating a new future role for Wayne Rooney?