Why Wayne Rooney Is Flourishing as Manchester United's Roaming Midfielder
Wayne Rooney has arguably become Manchester United's key player for the next five years or more, maybe progressively more as a midfielder.
The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid left a partial vacuum in the goal-scoring department that Rooney filled ably with 34 goals in all competitions. His heading especially improved immeasurably during that year.
Once again the club relied on him in the heart-breaking season last year, but the temporary retirement of Paul Scholes showed up a gap in creativity in midfield. Sir Alex tried to fill that by buying Lucas Moura, without success.
When that deal fell through it was a "no-brainer" to break the bank for Robin van Persie, provided that the supply lines to the front could be reinforced.
As we have mentioned in previous articles, Sir Alex has seen Michael Carrick as pivotal in the way the shape and style of United's play is evolving. Shinji Kagawa's arrival was a key element of that, together with the testing of different tactical formations, notably the "diamond" and 4-2-3-1.
Hung up on tactical formations
It seems ironic that there appears to be a growing fan preoccupation with tactical formations just as they are becoming more fluid.
What do we call Barcelona's 3-1-6, for example?
They are the team that has evolved and play what has become known as "tiki-taka" football. They have their imitators, most notably Brendan Rodgers, and it looked last summer as if Roman Abramovich's transfer strategy was built around planning for Chelsea to play that way.
So both Chelsea and Liverpool have been left with just one top-class striker.
If that is the way those clubs are going, they are overlooking some important truths.
Tiki taka is cultural at Barcelona and most of the players have grown up playing that way. A key element, apart from the high level of skill that is not typical in the English game, is that Barcelona's players have an intuitive awareness of each other because they've grown up together.
And that is what Sir Alex and head coach Rene Meulensteen are trying to achieve.
Except that Manchester United are not going to be playing tiki-taka.
So coming back to tactical formations, it may be that you can go to the relevant Sky Sports page for your team and see that they set up as, say 4-3-3.
You'll see the same sort of analysis for United, but when you watch a match like that against City you'll see something very different.
To oversimplify, the modern approach to stifling attacking football is to "swarm" around the man with the ball. Rodgers, for example, wants his players to win the ball back within seven seconds of losing it.
If you watch United, however, you'll see a determination not to give the ball away and when they do, a collective attempt to stifle or prevent the pass. So Sir Alex doesn't rely on tackling, because you only have to touch someone these days and they collapse in a heap.
So he is relying on interception or the inevitability that if you frustrate the opposition eventually they will give the ball away. Then the tactic is simply to attack at pace and in numbers.
So typically United's formation will oscillate between 9-1 in defence and 4-6 in attack, or more likely 3-7 as the plan now is for only one wing back to be up the field at any one time.
Even Sir Alex has started to use the word "interchange" in his description of United's play.
What people may forget is that both Barcelona's and now United's current style of play can trace their origins back to Ajax.
The great Dutch teams of the '70s and '80s played the nearest thing to "total football" outside Brazil. Johan Cruyff was the artist, the creator, the magician. Everything went through him. It was a method that was hard to mark because anyone was able and allowed to play anywhere.
Maybe Rooney can become United's Cruyff?
Cruyff moved to Barcelona and eventually became the director of football. The methodologies were instilled into every young player who joined the club.
Now, at United, we should remember that Rene Meulensteen's roots can be traced to Ajax. From the moment he was put in charge of coaching for the Academy he has instilled a new pattern whereby before a player is 16 they have been tried in every position on the pitch. Also a high level of skill and a game played at pace are schooled into the youngsters.
This now pervades United's players at every level. Shinji Kagawa wasn't signed just because he can play in the "hole." He was bought because he is a very intelligent, highly skilled and adaptable player who can fit in a system that relies on "dynamic interchange."
Take Anderson, Nani and Valencia for example. When they joined they couldn't tackle and didn't cover back in the way they do now, nor did Young. They have been drilled in that so that they can be just as much a part of the defence as they are in attack.
Wayne Rooney's role
So it has been clear for some time that Wayne is allowed to play where he thinks is best, except when he is required to cover, for example when he is replacing a wide player. Even then, like Van Persie, he can attack very effectively from the wing.
Ever since United have had to come to terms with Paul Scholes' eventual retirement, people have been labeled "the new Paul Scholes." Sir Alex has even referred to Nick Powell in that way. However, so far he seems more like the new Michael Carrick.
Surely Wayne Rooney is the natural heir apparent to the "Ginger prince"? He himself sees his future in midfield.
The difference is that he has the potential to be much more than that. Scholes has only ever once scored more than 14 goals in a season. He is also not well blessed with defensive skills.
Rooney's work rate is phenomenal and he is often found to be the last man covering back and then minutes later in the opposition penalty box.
He is flourishing in this role because he's basically a big kid who just wants to play football all day long. His skills and awareness continue to improve.
But you can still only be as good as you are allowed to be. Rooney is reveling in his partnership with Van Persie, which can continue to develop. His role also works well with Cleverley or Anderson in midfield. There is no reason why it can't be the same when Kagawa returns.
The thing is that Ferguson has recently signed clever players with pace. Van Persie, Young, Kagawa, Valencia and Jones are all intelligent in both a general, as well as a footballing, sense. In this respect Rooney is similar to Scholes and Carrick, who are also intelligent. All of these have an intuitive awareness of their colleagues around them.
Take, for example, the first goal that Rooney scored against City. Young knew where Van Persie was, whose return pass was sublime. Rooney was then going toward Young as the latter ran with the ball, but then he peeled away again to where Young hit the perfect pass for Rooney to score.
And Rooney and Van Persie can also do that to each other.
So people will read this article and say that Rooney doesn't play midfield, or he shouldn't play midfield because, for example, "he would be wasted there."
Is anyone at Barcelona going to say that Xavi and Iniesta shouldn't be in the box, or they are midfielders? What does a midfielder do at Barcelona, anyway?
Michael Carrick is a midfielder because he is required to play a holding role. That didn't stop him bursting into the box and nearly scoring against Sunderland. Meanwhile, Rooney or Cleverley would probably have been covering midfield.
If you think United set up with a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 then you would see Cleverley as nominally playing in midfield alongside Carrick. But does that mean he can't be in the box converting Carrick's "one-two" or that Rooney can't be covering back?
Because the essence is that United should not be predictable except in the sense that they will be in your face as an attacking force, with you not knowing who to mark; or they will be back as a collective, all 10 of them, marking, intercepting and breaking up as a team.
And at the heart of it invariably will be Wayne Rooney.
So then some people will ask how Kagawa and Rooney can play in the same team if they're both No. 10s? The answer is that wherever they are picked they both have the intelligence and the skill to interchange.
And that's the answer to any defensive strategy. Sir Alex Ferguson played a diamond formation in the the Newcastle game probably as much as anything to confound Alan Pardew, who probably thought they would set up as a 4-4-2.
It worked like a dream, as Sir Alex was quoted saying per The Sun:
...The football we played from the central midfield positions through Cleverley, Kagawa, Rooney and Carrick was terrific.
So that's four central midfielders. And that's how Sir Alex accommodates Rooney and Kagawa in the same team. A diamond with Carrick at the base, Rooney and Cleverley in between and Kagawa at the top. But do you honestly think it will rigidly stay this way?
And on the subject of tactical flexibility, Arsene Wenger said in the same article:
I think the formations teams use are much more flexible than 15 years ago, more adaptable
But you can only make the dynamic interchange between formations and positions work if you have players like Rooney, Kagawa, Cleverley and Van Persie.
Even Hernandez has had to fit in and play where the ball is when he comes in.
So whether City play three at the back or zonal marking, it can still be confounded. As Saturday showed, Rooney can be where he wants and arrive at the last minute from midfield to where the ball is and score.
So for all those who think United need a defensive midfield, or someone who can play creative midfield, or a holding role, this is really how someone like Kevin Strootman would fit in.
He can be back in front of his back four when United are defending, up making or supporting the attacks, or wherever the play takes him. All that, provided he is back defending when needed, or someone is covering him as Carrick was covered on his forward run on Saturday.
So don't be surprised in future if Rooney appears to be lining up in a central midfield role. He has the skill to play there, but he'll also have other players who can rotate through that space as needed.
There will be a time and place for the Paul Scholes-type "marquee pass" or the scything through ball, but United's game will increasingly be based around fast, close-passing and positional interchange.
And that is where Rooney will thrive.
Sadly it's also why it's the right time for Scholes and Giggs to retire.
Rooney can only flourish if the players around him understand and can thrive in this new dynamic style. But given that they will, including younger players who come through, it is how United can make the next step in their evolution.
It is also how Pep Guardiola can fit in as the new coach if he is appointed, without the need for him to wait 20 years for the generational change.
In the 1970s Liverpool were possibly the greatest team in the world for a while, as they imposed the physical English style of football on more relaxed continental teams.
Some time since then, the Europeans have caught up by becoming more physical themselves, especially in work-rate, while not losing their innate technical skill. The English Premier League sides were at risk of being left behind, as Chelsea and City's missed qualification demonstrates.
But with the growing advent of foreign coaches and foreign players, together with Academy graduates who have been schooled on skill rather than just brute force, things may come full circle.
In the modern game you have to be adaptable enough to play a different style and formation in the Premier League than you would in the Champions League. Or you could go the United way, with the ability to flex the system and interchange the player positions as needed during a game.
To do that you need players of great skill, strength and stamina, who ideally have defensive as well as attacking skills, together with a team ethic and an intuitive understanding of each other's game.
That is where Wayne Rooney will be the perfect focus for United for at least the next five years. Notionally playing increasingly in "midfield" but actually playing where is needed or is most effective.
You can try zonal marking or three at the back, but players like Rooney and Van Persie can become almost impossible to defend against with this degree of freedom and adaptability.
Meanwhile, the players in the English game with rigid and drilled formations will become the new dinosaurs.
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