Saturday’s game between Manchester United and Wigan Athletic was important for a few reasons. Slip ups from rivals Arsenal and Chelsea meant that United’s victory sent then joint top of the league, quite an achievement having “underperformed” for much of the season. Secondly, it saw the return of Old Trafford’s latest prodigal son, Wayne Rooney.
Rooney came on as a second half substitute, cleverly at the same time as but just after Paul Scholes, not to deafening boo’s but certainly not to tumultuous applause. A mixed reception at best. But forget the mess that surrounded Rooney’s contract negotiations, a genius trick from Ferguson or a sly bit of business by Rooney and agent is unimportant history now, let’s take a look at what Rooney’s return means on the pitch for United.
Last season Rooney scored some 34 goals in 44 games for Manchester United, unarguably a strong record that was of much benefit to his club. The question I want to pose however, is does Rooney cost a team too much to be a worthwhile part of the team?
Let me explain; Wayne Rooney is much praised for his teamwork and contribution to the team all over the park. But does Rooney make anyone else look good? When were United at their best recently? The 07/08 and 08/09 seasons, in which Cristiano Ronaldo was very much the focal point of everything United did, saw United winning back to back Premiership titles and reaching consecutive Champions League finals, winning the competition in 2008. Rooney cut a frustrated but disciplined figure on the left wing during those seasons (still contributing goals with 18 and 20 respectively.)
Since Ronaldo has left Rooney has become the focal point of United’s team and unfortunately they have failed to deliver a major trophy (Premiership or Champions League) since this change.
In order to play Wayne Rooney at centre forward (his favoured role) there needs to be a lot of sacrifice. Rooney likes to come short to get the ball, move into the channels to lose his marker and be the fox in the box scoring the goals for his team. In short it has to be all about Rooney, and don’t get me wrong, he is very very good in this role. But is it tenable in the modern game?
I believe that much of Berbatov’s perceived troubles during his United career are down to his playing partner. As Berba tries to drop off to collect the ball into feet he sees Rooney is already there. Nani’s free-role, right wing position that he has thrived in thus far this season is also hard to fit into a team including Rooney. Many United fans would tell you that some of their problems this season are down to a lack of creativity in centre midfield, Fletcher and Carrick offer an industrious yet uninventive midfield partnership, but once more a creative midfielder would have his space blocked by Rooney’s one man show. This has been shown for England, I wonder whether the “Gerrard, Lampard Problem” doesn’t have something to do with the “Rooney Problem.” I wonder if United did sign Sneijder or perhaps more realistically Pienaar or Modric, would they struggle to control the play as they do for their current clubs with such a ball and space demanding forward.
I don’t think there can be any argument as to Rooney’s quality as a footballer, I would be tempted to back him in a football singles tournament, but football is a team game. Winning teams win because they are made up of individuals that work together to form the best team (Spain and Barcelona?) not because they have the best individual performer (Real Madrid or Liverpool-2008?). On form, Rooney is good enough to almost single handedly fire Manchester United to the title in this most exciting (read lowest quality) title race for years. But the type of player that Rooney is and the (ill)effect I believe he has on his fellow players respective performances mean that a misfiring Rooney (like the one we saw in South Africa) could be highly detrimental to their title challenge.