Wayne Rooney celebrates scoring his first Manchester United goal of the season against Stoke City
There are other players who have been at the club longer, such as Darren Fletcher and Rio Ferdinand. There are others who may be just as good, such as Robin van Persie. There are some who are adored more as the epitome of United's past and their traditions, among them Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.
However, when it comes to being the talisman and the heartbeat of this United squad, Rooney is still the man.
Last week saw Rooney observe the 10th anniversary of his first goal in the Premier League. He is now in his ninth season at Manchester United and has scored 183 goals in 372 appearances for the club. Rooney's time at the club has been characterized by two things. First, he has played in whatever role the manager has required of him, including lead striker, support striker, left winger, right winger and central midfielder. Second, his goalscoring has always come in spurts with long streaks of goalless matches followed by equally long scoring streaks.
Rooney's start to the current season was disrupted by poor fitness followed by an injury layoff due to a gashed thigh. He subsequently came into the team as the attacking midfielder in a newly deployed diamond formation. In the 247 minutes he played as an attacking midfielder, Rooney supplied assists for four goals and created a total of eight chances (statistics via whoscored.com). In short, he played a sterling role as United's creator-in-chief.
The international break saw Rooney go back to the forward's role for England.
The move back to being a striker yielded immediate dividends for Roy Hodgson's side as Rooney scored two goals in the win against San Marino. He also opened the scoring for England in the 1-1 draw against Poland.
The return to United colors saw Rooney continue his scoring form as he scored two goals against Stoke City at the weekend. He also created the goal for Danny Welbeck and his rotating, fluid interplay with Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck was the highlight of Manchester United's attacking play.
With goals in three consecutive matches for club and country, it is obvious that Rooney is in the middle of another of his trademark hot scoring streaks.
Since the 2006-2007 season, the ex-Everton striker has scored 166 goals for club and country. Of those goals, 98 goals (or nearly 61 percent of the goals) have come in the middle of scoring streaks across a total of 83 matches. These streaks include 19 goals from 16 matches in 2009-10, two streaks of 10 goals from six and seven matches respectively in 2010-11 and nine goals from seven matches in 2008-09.
Sir Alex Ferguson must now realize that Rooney is now in the middle of another scoring streak, when he feels confident he can score off any chance he gets. His demeanor before a goal during these streaks is like that of a predator who has smelled blood. Ferguson and United must take advantage of this streak and push Rooney higher up the pitch in the striking positions to make full use of his goalscoring threat.
In the past, Sir Alex has acknowledged Rooney's tendency to score his goals in bursts. After last season's match against Wolves in which Rooney scored two goals, this is what the United manager had to say (quote via thesun.co.uk):
Would you prefer to see Wayne Rooney play the next few games as a striker or an attacking midfielder?
With Wayne in particular, he tends to score in spurts — for instance, early this season he scored 11 in the early part of the campaign.
It may be argued that taking advantage of Rooney's goalscoring streaks was even more important in past seasons because lack of an equivalent goal threat elsewhere in the team. This season, United carry an extra threat going forward now with van Persie in the team, backed up by more confident performances from Welbeck and the poacher's instinct of Javier Hernandez. However, it would still be foolish for United to ignore Rooney's goalscoring exploits, considering his past history.
While in the past, United may have been caught short by pushing Rooney up as a striker, this season is different because of the presence of Shinji Kagawa and the emergence of Tom Cleverley in the team.
Kagawa is a versatile, creative player who is perfectly suited to the attacking midfielder's role in the United diamond. In addition, Cleverley has the ability to either play the same role or to create chances from deep with his neat, pinpoint passing and mobility.
As a result, United no longer need Wayne Rooney to play the role of both the creator and the finisher. Sir Alex Ferguson has the luxury of deploying him as one or the other, depending on his current form.
Thus, with Rooney once again showing signs of having returned to goalscoring form, it is imperative United play him as a forward in the upcoming matches. Only then will the team be able to extract the most game-changing contributions from their talisman.