Wayne Rooney received plaudits aplenty for his goalscoring performance in an unfamiliar central midfield role against Romanian outfit Otelul Galati.
Rooney’s man of the match performance only served to shine further light on the relative paucity of central midfield options at Ferguson’s disposal. Although the switch was necessitated by injuries to the likes of Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick, could it be a permanent solution to a long-term problem?
Here’s an excerpt of an article that I wrote in March of last season: “Rooney, while nowhere near the same player as Scholes was in his pomp, does possess similar skills such as an excellent range of passing, which coupled with the vision he has to help to unlock a defence and the move begins to make a lot more sense. Rooney’s adaptability and inherent tenacity could make this tactical shift a profitable one for both club and player and he certainly looks capable of playing in midfield.”
What was true then still is today. However, I did offer up the following caveat: “We all know that when Rooney becomes frustrated he has a natural predilection to drop deeper and deeper in an attempt to try and influence play further forward. The fact that he’s often required further forward to finish off these very same attacks in the first place seems to be an irony completely lost on Rooney.”
Rooney has all the qualities to make a success of himself as a central midfielder, but would it be to the detriment of the side were he to do so? Ferguson has previous when it comes to experimenting with players in central midfield. His conversion of Alan Smith from bullish striker to tenacious holding man left a lot to be desired, and he can now be found in the reserves at Newcastle, with a career in tatters and visions of what might have been.
Early on during his Man Utd career, Rio Ferdinand was also experimented with as a holding midfield player. Ferdinand has often been termed a ‘Rolls Royce’ of a player due to his composure on the ball and the elegant nature of his distribution. Much like Rooney, he too had all the tools to be a perfectly serviceable central midfield player. But even though the shift was somewhat short-lived, it left the centre of Utd’s defence a shambles with a Ferdinand shaped hole in the middle of it and he was rather understandably pushed back before giving a true chance to make a lasting impression.
This could be the potential spanner in the works with using Rooney as a long-term successor to Paul Scholes as the creative, deep-lying fulcrum of Utd’s midfield. It’s all a case of square pegs and round holes for me.
It seems to be a monumental waste of Rooney’s talents further forward. After all, despite being a player that performs only in spurts in front of goal, he still boasts a record of 46 goals in his last 69 games – far beyond the Holy Grail of a one in two ratio, the yardstick by which any quality striker is judged by. He may not be a natural goalscorer, not even a natural finisher, but he is naturally creative and his ability to find space, coupled with his superb movement on and off the ball will always mean that he creates chances for himself.
There is a chasm of difference between having a player like Rooney, someone with a natural predilection to drop deeper and actually starting him as a recognised central midfielder. The responsibilities completely change and there are about 20 yards of difference between the two’s starting positions – a huge amount in the modern game.
It’s worth putting into context the strength of the opposition too. Last night’s Romanian opponents are currently eighth in their country’s top flight. It’s not like the experiment hasn’t been tried before either.
His red card for England at Euro 2006 was a direct consequence of Rooney dropping back into midfield. He was also asked to perform a man-marking role on Sergio Busquets in last season’s Champions League final and look how that one turned out.
The fact remains that against a team of minnows, quality will always shine through and that is exactly what Rooney is – quality. He’s an exceptional player gifted with exceptional technique. The problem is against stronger opponents; his lack of experience in the role will be found out. His lack of positional discipline has often been highlighted as a cause for concern further forward, so why does all that change when he’s pushed back deeper into a role that requires even more of it in the first place?
I wrote back in March: “It’s clear that if Rooney isn’t moved backwards, then it’s pivotal that the club signs a player capable of creating chances from the middle of midfield.” Therein lays the real problem. The club simply haven’t invested in the right areas. It’s become abundantly clear that the side require a top notch holding midfielder to truly challenge the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid. The worrying aspect of all of this, though, is that you could have said the exact same thing three years ago.
Much like Arsene Wenger had with goalkeepers and centre backs and Rafa Benitez had with wingers and full backs, Ferguson appears to have developed a bit of a blind spot when it comes to central midfielders.
Out of the current crop, only Tom Cleverley and a fully-fit Darren Fletcher are worth their salt. Anderson and Michael Carrick simply aren’t good enough to play for a club the size of United. Ferguson will need to sign as many as two, maybe three central midfielders to fully sort out the problem. His refusal to do so as yet can be put down to little more than pig-headed stubbornness of the worst kind.
Wayne Rooney can obviously play in central midfield. His performance against Otelul Galati should have come as no surprise. The problem with moving him back there permanently is that you deprive the side of its best striker further forward. The only thing Rooney’s performance should exemplify is a need to invest in a recognised central midfielder or two either in January or next summer – for it has been long overdue.
He may well be a temporary solution to a long-term issue, but as far as Rooney being converted into a fully-fledged central midfield player, it’s all a bit too pie in the sky for me.
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