Why isn’t Wayne Rooney the player we thought he’d become?

Wayne Rooney is a force of nature: a natural, swaggering, street footballer who used to play the game with the reckless abandon of the best player in the playground and who made the dimensions of the pitch seem to shrink whenever he received the ball. He retains all of these qualities, despite his current loss of form, but he only really got the credit his talent deserved in England when he started scoring goals.

With a player as gifted – as potentially world-beating – as Rooney, goals suddenly seem a rather banal commodity. Goal tallies are for players like Michael Owen and Ruud van Nistelrooy: single-minded, stat-obsessed penalty box prowlers, not marauding, bulldozing, game-changing tyrants like Rooney.

The trouble for Rooney is that he is a striker, which, in the reductive lexicon of his country’s football vocabulary, means he is expected, first and foremost, to score goals. Never mind the way he strode into the national consciousness as a freakishly precocious 16-year-old man-boy, or the outrageous lobs, chips and volleys he tucked away in the early years of his Manchester United career, or the devastatingly effective partnership he formed with supposed sworn enemy Cristiano Ronaldo between 2006 and 2009. The English press did not begin comparing him to Lionel Messi, Xavi and Wesley Sneijder until he started converting six-yard headers with almost monotonous regularity against the likes of Wigan and Birmingham last season.

Rooney does not merit comparison with players like Messi, Xavi or Sneijder, but it was not by scoring goals that he was ever going to get there. The words penned on his impending departure from Old Trafford over the last few days have been tinged with an almost elegiac quality, but if anything sounded the death knell on Rooney’s aspirations to fulfil his huge teenage potential, it was a failure of imagination at both club and international level that saw him deployed first as a diligent, hard-working left-winger and then as a perfunctory, fox-in-the-box centre-forward.

Rooney is not a number 10 (if anything he is a nine-and-a-half), but in his vision of the game, his technique and his incredible physical qualities, he has enough to become the attacking fulcrum of any team. Instead he has been coached and coerced and shaped into a fairly run-of-the-mill central striker – just as Joe Cole, once the very incarnation of the kind of free-spirited, ceaselessly inventive player England wasn’t supposed to be able to produce, was coached and coerced and shaped into a fairly run-of-the-mill wide midfielder. “Those who said I’m not an out-and-out goal-scorer are probably right,” Rooney admitted in January this year.

Why was Rooney shunted to the left to accommodate Ronaldo during the 2007-08 season? Why was Dimitar Berbatov signed to lope around the territory that was once Rooney’s exclusive domain? Why did Rooney spend four dismal matches at the World Cup playing as a perfectly regulation centre-forward in a perfectly regulation 4-4-2? Why have none of his coaches had the courage to build a team with him as its wildly and erratically pumping heart?

It may be that he was never up to it. Maybe Sir Alex Ferguson realised early on that he didn’t possess the discipline or the restraint – or perhaps the breadth of personality - to be handed the keys to the United attack, as Eric Cantona once was. But it would have been a fascinating experiment, and if and when Rooney does swap Old Trafford for the City of Manchester Stadium or the Santiago Bernabéu, there will surely be few United fans who wouldn’t have swapped some of those close-range headers for just a few more lobs, chips and volleys.

26 Responses to “Why isn’t Wayne Rooney the player we thought he’d become?”

  • Thomas:

    Flat out brilliant.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Wilson, Alex Kunawicz, Wei Li, Daniel, Vijay and others. Vijay said: @OliverKayTimes @seaningle @SwissRamble @Zonal_Marking Rooney by @tomwfootball http://bit.ly/92FiVW Absolutely brilliant stuff. [...]

  • Rooney’s a victim of his own versatility. Ronaldo’s form demanded that he play up front, so Rooney filled the space on the wing. Last season United didn’t have a goalscorer, so he did that. Can’t really blame Fergie for using him to fulfil necessary roles in the team, but at the same time see how Tevez has blossomed since getting the freedom to do pretty much whatever he wants (not the same player, I know).

    I don’t see Rooney as a ‘star’ who needs the side building around him, but as a team player who can combine hard work with imagination and skill. A bit like Xavi and Iniesta, I suppose. Which is why his patent lack of effort this season is so depressing.

    • Tom:

      I agree that Rooney is, today, an effective team player who works well in particular systems, but I can’t help but feel that somewhere along the line during his development, an opportunity was missed. Rooney used to be the most thrilling, visceral player in English football and was supposedly destined to become some kind of perfect hybrid of Paul Gascoigne and Alan Shearer. Clearly, that hasn’t happened, and I just wonder what kind of player he might have become if he’d emerged in a different country, or if he’d played for a team that offered him more attacking freedom than United did over an extended period of time.

      • Yeah, he was ridiculously exciting in the early days. It’s a fine line between channelling your energies more efficiently and losing your edge.

        But I can’t think of many 25-year-olds from any country who play like teenage Rooney. Maybe hooning it round like a pitbull with a pitchfork up its arse just isn’t a particularly effective way of playing football – however thrilling to watch.

        (And yes, I realise that description completely ignores the vision, skill and creativity he also showed as a kid.)

  • Ben:

    He played as a left winger with defensive duties in a limited number of important games because it suited the team and because, frankly, it made more sense to sacrifice Rooney than Ronaldo. Ronaldo is the better player.

    But most of the time he was nominally left side of a fluid front three. It was a position that he is superb in. He can drive forwards, he can cut inside and shoot and – a part of his game very underated – he can drop his shoulder and deliver fantastic right foot crosses. Remember the Untied Tottenham 5-2? The third United goal is a great example (and all four of United’s goals from open play came from Rooney exploiting the left sided forward position).

    I just don’t understand why playing as a wide forward in a 4231/433/whatever is a failure of imagination. Messi plays there after all. Is that a waste of his talents? Of course not. What about when Villa plays there? Or Muller for Germany?

    • Tom:

      You’re right, there’s nothing essentially unimaginative about deploying an attacking player as a wide forward in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, but I don’t think it ever got the best out of Rooney. Yes, he produced some impressive performances there, but that says more about his drive and adaptability than his suitability for the role. The 2008-09 Champions League final is a case in point. Rooney played wide on the left and I can’t remember him doing a single thing of note in the entire game. Having said that, I prefer him playing on the left than as an out-and-out centre-forward.

      • Ben:

        I think we need to distinguish between as a wide forward in a 433 and playing wide in a 451. In the former Rooney is impressive (though we might argue about quite how good he is there) but he’s wasted in the latter. I agree totally about the 2008-9 final.

        • Roberticus:

          I agree; whenever played on the left, Rooney’s tactical brief could vary from being a liberated old-fashioned outside-forward to a huffing-and-puffing wide midfielder .. in the 2009 Champs League Final for instance he was at times tracking back to within a few metres of Patrice Evra behind him whenever United lost the ball, rendering it a 4-4-1-1.

      • Thor Magnus:

        A bit late for commenting on this now, I know, but only discovered your blog today. I just want to point out that Rooney played a superb 50 or 60 yard cross-field pass, one to surpass even Scholes, for one of United’s great chances in the first half of that final.

  • Steve:

    It seems to have as much to do with the lack of goal scorer for England. If England had David Villa punching home goals, my guess is Rooney would be under much less pressure to score. I love the 9 1/2 comment, and I think it gets to the root of the frustration. He doesn’t score enough goals to be a 9, and he doesn’t control the flow of the game the way a 10 should. I personally think he’s at his best when he backtracks, wins a ball, and starts an attack, but he really only defends the midfield when he feels like it. Thats never been his defined role. I’m very interested to see which club he ends up with if he moves, and how that will change the way he plays.

    • “He doesn’t score enough goals to be a 9″

      In light of his exploits last season, I don’t think that’s true. Rooney can do a great job at no.9 but it’s frustrating to see a player of his guile and creative talents being restricted to merely goal-poaching (as he was last season).

      The best I’ve seen of Rooney was in the 06/07 season when he had a technical pivot (Saha) to play behind, roaming around with Cristiano Ronaldo and scoring 23/assisting 20 in the process.

      • Tom:

        “The best I’ve seen of Rooney was in the 06/07 season when he had a technical pivot (Saha) to play behind, roaming around with Cristiano Ronaldo and scoring 23/assisting 20 in the process.”

        My thoughts exactly.

      • Ben:

        I realise that goals are not the only measure of a forward’s worth. But I think we’re in danger of swinging too far in the other direction if we start to argue that last season Rooney was reduced to merely scoring goals.

        Scoring goals is, after all, ultimately the point.

        • bobeto:

          Ben

          I disagree. To quote Jonathan Wilson, ‘goals are overrated’. It’s a point of view I share.

          Rather than ask how many goals does Rooney score, we should ask how may goals do United score when Rooney plays? And how do they play? And is there a difference in the answers to those questions when he plays different roles in different formations?

          One interpretation of the evolution of Manchester United towards the team that won the Champions League is to say that the key was ditching van Nistelrooy, which both their team play and the trophy count bear witness to.

          Moving Rooney up top may mean he scores more goals, but if United are less effective as a result then it’s “comme pisser dans un violon” (like pissing in a violin – a French expression meaning pointless. It’s a French football website after all!)

          And I agree entirely with the sentiments of Tom’s last paragraph in particular. So from both the tactical and aesthetic points of view, why would stick a player that good up front?

          Tom

          I Agree that Rooney circa 2007 was a much more effective player than last season’s goal merchant, but I’d go further back for his opera – Euro 2004. He was totally fearless and utterly terrifying. As a Frenchman, I was crapping myself whenever he got the ball. I’ll never forget Thierry Henry’s glazed expression and shell shocked words on full time – “Rooney, what a player” (pronounced “Wruneh, wh’a'a’ pla’a” – he was a bit tired :-P)

          • “I Agree that Rooney circa 2007 was a much more effective player than last season’s goal merchant, but I’d go further back for his opera – Euro 2004. He was totally fearless and utterly terrifying.”

            While I think Rooney of 2004 was the most exciting Rooney I’ve seen (don’t forget that wonderful hattrick vs Fenerbahce), he was still raw and he needed fine tuning in a tactical sense (particularly his creative talents and goalscoring instincts). Don’t forget he was a 10 goal-a-season player back then, all players naturally tend to curb their youthful enthusiasm as they mature and strive to become more efficient players. I think the comment above rings true:

            “It’s a fine line between channelling your energies more efficiently and losing your edge.”

            In my opinion, the Rooney of 2007 had managed to reign in some of that raw aggression in favour of a better team-based game, yet still retained his dribbling, long distance strikes, finesse finishes etc. From 07/08 onwards he seemed to go downhill and began his transformation into a goal poacher. I don’t think he’s scored a goal from outside the box since the game against Newcastle that season, and he certainly doesn’t dribble past players nowadays.

  • [...] Why isn’t Wayne Rooney the player we thought he’d become? “Wayne Rooney is a force of nature: a natural, swaggering, street footballer who used to play the game with the reckless abandon of the best player in the playground and who made the dimensions of the pitch seem to shrink whenever he received the ball. He retains all of these qualities, despite his current loss of form, but he only really got the credit his talent deserved in England when he started scoring goals.” (Football Further) [...]

  • KW:

    Why isn’t Rooney the player we thought he’d be?.. Two words: Alex Ferguson!

    When Rooney was bought, he was a rampaging force of nature. His forte was what he did in Euro 2004 and in his earlier United days; He was brilliant when given an almost totally free role. But I would argue that the beginning of the end was not Berbatov, but Tevez. Tevez was bought to do exactly what Rooney did and when Tevez came, Rooney was pushed to a nominal number 9 position (it is a myth that Ronaldo was played central and Rooney on the left..that probanly only happened in about 5 games per season). Yes there was a lot of interchanging between the 3 but esentially Rooney was the centre forward and first Tevez, then Berbatov were played in the position that in my opinion, Rooney was born to play in.

    Sir Alex took Rooney and basically turned him into a slightly shorter, more energetic version of Ruud van Nistelroy…a 6-yard box poacher.

  • Andrew:

    I just wanted to say thank you for writing this article. It says exactly what I’ve been thinking about Rooney – despite his goal tally last season, it still seems like his talent has been wasted somewhat. Perhaps when he moves to Man City (*spits*) he’ll be reinvigorated a la Tevez, but I wouldn’t bank on it.

  • This is a brilliant, brilliant piece, Tom.

  • Interesting piece. I agree with most of it but can’t help thinking sometimes too much is read into the minute details of players’ positions and the team’s tactics. If he’d started this season like he did the last nobody would be moaning about him at all. Similarly, when he plays well at left mid he’ll be praised for his versatility and how effective he is in deeper positions, but if he has a bad game he’s wasted, he’s out of position, he’s not left footed etc. etc.

    I don’t think he was ever going to be the fulcrum of the team, the source of all of United attacks, the sort of quarterback/fly half role that Paul Scholes plays so well (and Xavi, Kaka, Lampard, Fabregas and Pirlo all play). I don’t think he’s got the intelligence for it – he’s got good vision and a good feel for the game but he’s not a playmaker. I think that’s what United lack when Scholes doesn’t play, and worryingly there’s not a natural successor to the little magician in the team (I think Darren Fletcher comes closest these days!)

    I like the comment (think it’s in one of the articles you linked to) about a striker’s individual goals being less important than the amount scored by the team when he plays. When will the attitude change from the importance of the individual player to the importance of 11 players: THE TEAM? I think the media have a large part to play in this limited view of what is a TEAM game.

  • [...] As Football Further observed in October, although Rooney is unquestionably cable of scoring at a prolific rate, he is a far more exciting player when he has the freedom to roam the pitch that he was granted against the French champions. It may make United less efficient, less sleek and less defensively robust, but if the off-shoot is that Rooney rediscovers the unabashed joy in playing that once made him the most feared teenager in world football, it is surely a small price to pay. Posted in Champions League | Tags: Javier Hernández, Manchester United, Wayne Rooney [...]

  • [...] common lament cast in Rooney’s direction – and it has been aired on this blog – is that he has not turned into the player everyone hoped he would become, but perhaps this [...]

  • [...] A common lament cast in Rooney’s direction is that he has not turned into the player everyone hoped he would become, but perhaps this is only as good as he was ever going to be (and it’s not like he’s had a disappointing career in the first place). Were it not for English football’s impatience with regard to the development of teenage players, both he and Walcott (whose exposure to the media spotlight at the age of 16 did him no favours whatsoever) might have been able to learn their trade unencumbered by the impossible expectation that they would be able to indefinitely preserve their margin of superiority over the other players in their age group. [...]

  • [...] A common lament cast in Rooney’s direction is that he has not turned into the player everyone hoped he would become, but perhaps this is only as good as he was ever going to be (and it’s not like he’s had a disappointing career in the first place). Were it not for English football’s impatience with regard to the development of teenage players, both he and Walcott (whose exposure to the media spotlight at the age of 16 did him no favours whatsoever) might have been able to learn their trade unencumbered by the impossible expectation that they would be able to indefinitely preserve their margin of superiority over the other players in their age group. [...]

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