It may vary from country to country, but there is a strange hierarchy of positions, and in England it still sees centre-forward as the place to play.
The two most expensive players in football history may have been wide forwards. I hesitate to use the term "wingers" because neither Gareth Bale nor Cristiano Ronaldo are wingers in the traditional sense; rather they have many of the characteristics of forwards but happen to operate from a wide starting position.
Yet for Wayne Rooney to play anywhere other than in the middle is perceived as a demotion.
In his range of talents, Rooney is an almost unique footballer. Perhaps his first touch is not quite as deft as it ought to be for a truly world-class creator, but he is still the closest thing English football has had to an old-fashioned No. 10 since Teddy Sheringham retired. He sees spaces where others don’t, and he has that remarkable capacity to map the game, to know almost instinctively where opponents and team-mates are.
He has technical ability and a ferocious shot. He is good in the air, extraordinarily so given he is only 5’9”, and powerful of chest and shoulder. He somehow combines the attributes of the old-fashioned strike partnership, both leader of the line and inside-forward. Yet he is also adept at regaining possession.
He may be wild at times, but there is no forward in the Premier League so keen to fight to regain the possession. In fact, the surest warning sign that he is losing patience in a game is when he appears near his own box, snapping into tackles.
But what that means is that Rooney is doomed always to be underappreciated, even as he racked up his 200th goal for Manchester United on Tuesday night. There may be legitimate grumbles about his lifestyle or his jockeying for improved contracts, but as a player, much of the dissatisfaction comes because he is held up against templates that don’t really apply.
Is he as good a finisher as Robin van Persie? No. Is he as skilful as Lionel Messi? No. Is he as astute a passer as Xavi? No. Is he as good in the air as Andy Carroll? No. Does he see the game as well as Andres Iniesta? No. Does he regain possession as well as Lucas Leiva? No.
But he is a fascinating hybrid of all six.
That means managers have often played him in a variety of positions. He is the one who moves to accommodate others. The old-fashioned mindset sees that as a snub, when actually it is a compliment to Rooney’s versatility.
He, though, perhaps with half an eye on posterity (we may make lists of the greatest centre-forwards or the greatest creators ever, but nobody yet has begun cataloguing the greatest players who can play to a very high standard in two of three different roles) seems actively to have clarification on where he will play.
David Moyes said at the weekend that he intends to use Rooney in tandem with van Persie, hoping they become a feared strike-force. There’s nothing wrong with that—and it should be acknowledged he was answering a question about Rooney operating in midfield—but it does seem to deny him an option that has proved effective in the past.
When United won the Champions League in 2008, Rooney often operated wide in a 4-3-3. It’s a role that suits him. He is dogged in tracking the opposing full-back, and he can still create and score goals.
A 4-3-3 would better combat a side with aggressive full-backs and, moreover, would allow Moyes to use an additional central midfielder—Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini and Shinji Kagawa or Tom Cleverley offering greater solidity through the middle.
Perhaps Moyes will consider that. Perhaps his words at the weekend were an elaborate bluff. Perhaps he simply doesn’t think 4-3-3 suits this squad. But it’s to be hoped that he hasn’t ruled out a tactical option for the sake of a player’s ego or an archaic preconception of how he should be playing.
Rooney’s versatility should be celebrated.
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