Wayne Rooney's Cameo in Manchester United Midfield: Enjoy It While It Lasts

Tony MabertContributor INovember 4, 2011

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 02:  Marius Pena of Otelul Galati jumps with Rio Ferdinand (5) and Wayne Rooney (10) of Manchester Unitedduring the UEFA Champions League Group C match between Manchester United and Otelul Galati at Old Trafford on November 2, 2011 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

A lot has been made of Wayne Rooney's stint in central midfield for Manchester United this week, with some claiming it gives us a teasing glimpse into the player's future with the club.

The England forward started alongside Anderson in the centre of the Old Trafford pitch for the Champions League meeting with Otelul Galati, raising the question as to whether we will see him play there more in the years to come.

A home win against the Romanians was always a foregone conclusion, and so it came to pass with a 2-0 victory via an Antonio Valencia strike and a Cristian Sarghi own goal.

As such, United boss Alex Ferguson used the Group C fixture to experiment with using his star man in a different role.

Rooney has been in the most fearsome and consistent scoring form of his career ever since he tentatively emerged from his 12-month malaise earlier this year. His United goal tally is already in double figures this season (nine in the Premier League, including two hat tricks, and two in Europe).

However, it is not difficult to see the logic in Ferguson's decision to shift No. 10 into a position more traditionally associated with that number. That of creator—something Rooney has a penchant for doing when playing as a forward, as well.

We often see him dropping deep to get touches on the ball and dictate play with aplomb, sending searching passes with a pinpoint accuracy that Xabi Alonso—often considered the best long-ball specialist in Europe these days—would surely applaud.With Paul Scholes now retired, Michael Carrick still injured and Tom Cleverley being eased back into action after hurting his ankle, the United manager has often seen his midfield lacking in creativity and dynamism so far this season.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 27:  Danny Welbeck, Michael Carrick and Ji-Sung Park of Manchester United look dejected as Alexander Frei of Basel scores their third goal from the penalty spot during the UEFA Champions League Group C match between Manches
Michael Regan/Getty Images

While the workmanlike endeavour of midfielder Darren Fletcher, winger Park Ji-Sung and even defender Phil Jones are worthy and necessary components of any decent central unit, Rooney can offer that and much more.

It is not exactly unfamiliar territory for him either. As a nominal forward often given free rein behind the main striker, Rooney is well-used to dropping deep as well as roaming wide in search of the ball. He is especially doing so on a more frequent basis in an England shirt, with Steven Gerrard all too often absent through injury and Frank Lampard showing the first signs of fading away.

Rooney's exceptional all-around natural talent has been utilised in a different way before by Ferguson.

During Cristiano Ronaldo's final two years at the club, Rooney and Carlos Tevez very much ploughed their own furrows on either flank, running themselves into the ground in support of the rampant Portuguese forward. The tactic won United their third European Cup and Ronaldo a World Player of the Year award, so you could probably argue that it was effective.

It wasn't until Ronaldo left, however, that we saw Rooney wreak havoc from a more central striking position in 2009-10, a season in which he was phenomenal, bagging 36 goals in all competitions.Rooney's goals often seem to come in spurts, as his goal count peaks and troughs. For example, this season he began by scoring 11 goals in his first nine games for club and country whereas, were it not for his two penalties in the win over Galati in Romania two weeks previously, he would be on a run of none in his last seven.

Such is his overriding worth to the United team, however, that he is still able to be hugely influential even when not scoring.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 02:  Wayne Rooney of Manchester United applauds the crowd after the UEFA Champions League Group C match between Manchester United and Otelul Galati at Old Trafford on November 2, 2011 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laure
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

From his midfield role on Tuesday he completed 98 passes, by far the most of any United player on the night. He released Dimitar Berbatov down the right flank on eight minutes to kick off the move which led to Valencia's opening goal, and he generally reveled in spraying the ball around from deep, doing his best impression of Andrea Pirlo, another midfielder with creative bent who flourishes in a deeper-lying role.

Yet United and England fans should hope that this brief sojourn into the engine room does not become a permanent fixture just yet.

Rooney's value as a forward is simply too great for Ferguson to pick and choose when he is deployed up front on a regular basis. Goals such as his overhead kick against Manchester City last season would not have been scored if he were in the ''quarterback'' role. He simply would not have been in that position inside the box for most of the match.

Having just turned 26, there are still plenty of years left in Rooney's legs for him to drop, probe and burst inside the opposition half in order to unsettle defences for the benefit of himself and others. The days when he can bask in semi-retirement by being permanently stationed inside the centre circle are a long way off yet.

Besides, such long-anticipated position changes—dropping one level so to speak—do not always work out as hoped: Roy Keane's dalliance as a centre-back late in his career is a particularly cautionary tale.

This year alone, Ferguson has fielded Carrick at centre-back, Valencia at left-back and even Ryan Giggs at left-back, all borne out of necessity rather than any long-term strategy. Rooney's temporary move is just another example out of that. 

While Rooney remains the only Englishman good enough to get anywhere near the 23-man shortlist for the Ballon d'Or, such a move would stifle his talent and benefit no one except his opponents.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.