He may have only been awarded a rather ungenerous 7/10 by L’Équipe, but there was something thrilling about Wayne Rooney’s performance against Marseille on Tuesday night.
Playing in a deep position in support of Javier Hernández, Rooney prowled the pitch demanding the ball from his team-mates and looked full of the swagger of old. His roaming occasionally took him so far from the opposition’s penalty area that he was collecting the ball from his centre-backs, while he created the opening goal with two beautifully measured passes – the first a fading half-volley to Ryan Giggs on the Manchester United left; the second a low cross that Hernández converted from close range. At all times he looked hungry to get on the ball and play.
That Dimitar Berbatov should find himself on the bench for such an important game despite enjoying his finest season to date in a United shirt may seem unfortunate, but it is only when the Bulgarian is not in the side that Rooney can lay claim to the territory in which he longs to operate. Alongside a goalpoacher such as Hernández, who plays on the shoulder of the last defender and thrives on service from midfield, Rooney can position himself in the spaces left vacant by the retreating centre-backs. When Berbatov plays, however, it is he that patrols such areas, forcing Rooney to operate as a more conventional centre-forward.
“[Hernández] has got great movement so I’m playing the position that I did when I started playing professionally,” explained Rooney after the game against Marseille. ”It’s not often forwards get the chance to be on the ball and enjoy playing. I enjoyed tonight.”
[Squad numbers: 1. Edwin van der Sar; 22. John O'Shea, 12. Chris Smalling, 6. Wes Brown, 3. Patrice Evra; 16. Michael Carrick, 18. Paul Scholes; 17. Nani, 10. Wayne Rooney, 11. Ryan Giggs; 14. Javier Hernández]
Despite mainly operating in the most congested area of the pitch, Rooney’s pass completion ratio was a commendable 71 percent, greater than that of any of his partners in the attacking third (Nani: 57 percent; Giggs: 61; Hernández: 67), and he attempted twice as many passes as his nominal strike partner Hernández (52 to 27). More impressive than the bare statistics, however, was the range and accuracy of his passing. Several difficult balls into the box from deep positions found their targets with the millimetric precision of a heat-seeking missile.
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 a little less efficient, a little less sleek and a little 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.