He is United’s best outfield player. He is England’s best player. He is also no longer the force we knew him to be and it’s time to accept that.
Wayne Rooney epitomises what is valued about the quintessential English player. He runs tirelessly, he’s selfless on the pitch, he plays a mean long ball, and he isn’t afraid to put in a hard tackle. These are the same qualities that have essentially meant that at 29, he is now on a decline that even the casual fan can see. When van Persie began his own decline in 2013/14 after leading United to a 20th English league title, Rooney himself began his. His most ardent supporters failed to see this and instead preferred to believe that he could seamlessly drop into a striker’s role and be the world-class striker he was for two Premier league seasons. The issue with that was his willingness to play any and everywhere on the pitch meant that he was unable to showcase his very best at his very best position.
Stay away from something too long, no matter how good you are at it, and your talents will fade.
Rooney has played in positions other than striker for so long that he has forgotten how to be instinctive enough to reach the heights he once did. This is certainly not the only reason why. He simply has played so much football. Already a veteran of 481 games for United, Rooney is a 29 year old trapped in a 32 to 34 year olds body. Fitness issues, playing time, and effort given on the footballing pitch have accelerated his footballing clock.
With van Persie it was injuries that meant he was looking like a spent force in his last season at United. For Rooney, his strengths have become his biggest inhibitor. At this time, self-preservation would be wiser than to bear the brunt of everything as he has done for the better part of a decade. Ball control became his Achilles heel towards the early part of the new decade and as a striker this will be to your detriment perhaps more than in any other position. His sharpness isn’t there. There is only so much one man can do.
Rooney deserves the utmost respect but United have a major issue now with whether Rooney and the rest are enough to carry a title challenge. Rooney himself perhaps faces a battle to stay in the team, something unimaginable as late as last year. His replacements look far from impressive and therefore, United’s fortunes rest heavily in his hands. His decline is visible. It also is borne out statistically.
In 2012/13 and 2013/14 he was able to record a goal or assist every 90 minutes which although not earth shattering was still an enviably high standard. Last season, he fell victim to van Gaal’s love affair with playing people out of position and was restricted to stints in midfield. In fact, he played 15 times out of 33 as either a primary or supporting striker. Inevitably, his numbers declined and he registered 0.54 goals or assists per 90 minutes. It would be good if that decline could be dismissed as only resultant of the change in position. This wasn’t so as he looked visibly slower in his reflexes, his passing was at times atrocious (not good for central midfield), and generally looked jaded and a shadow of himself.
This worrying trend has leaked over into the present season and although Rooney remains a very good player and an asset to a manager for his work ethic and determination, he needs help.
Shades of Van Persie
Adnan Januzaj looked much like van Persie would as he cut sharply onto his weaker right foot and left his defender on the floor before scoring a well taken, if fortunate, game winner against Aston Villa on Friday. He is young but he is also massively talented and the only manager to give him full confidence got everybody in Europe talking about him. He is massively dependent on confidence at this point in his career and he must be encouraged. Whether he can fill the void and give Rooney some much needed rest remains to be seen but he has the potential to do so.
Van Gaal could look to ease him in as both support and a replacement in substitute minutes for Rooney. His eye for goal and his trickery make him a candidate to elevate United’s dour play. If United don’t get a striker of which Harry Kane would be an interesting but not realistic choice as the leading man then Adnan, Wilson, and Hernandez must be trusted with more minutes. Wilson and Januzaj can both be eased into more starting time with Rooney possibly supporting while Hernandez can try to renew his most super of super sub roles.
United need a spark and for once Rooney might not be the man to provide it. Di Maria or Falcao weren’t the answer either. One never wanted to be at the club and one is simply done as a world class player. Rooney has been starved for chances partly because of the odd selections that constantly displace Ander Herrera but this too is little excuse for being wasteful when the opportunity is afforded. United’s best player is on a decline and this might be the time to look at another main provider of goals while Rooney falls back into a supporting striker role. A class player is always a class player and only a foolish man would bet against him finding his feet at some point but his consistency, or lack thereof, will make it that much more difficult for United to challenge seriously for titles.