Can Wayne Rooney be the answer to Manchester United's midfield problems?
Analyzing Wayne Rooney's role in the Manchester United squad and his transformation as a midfielder
This season when United brought in one of the shrewdest managers in Europe to take over the reins, there was an air of expectation around Old Trafford. Changes had to be made, after all the great club just had their worst season in the past generation. Louis van Gaal (LVG) has an arrogance about everything he does; he makes harsh decisions and changes roles of players to fit in his philosophy.
We’ve seen Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia dust their pants and find lost form, that was hidden somewhere in their repertoire, when LVG moved them to wing back positions. I never thought I’d say this, but Young’s injury is quite a loss to the team at this stage of the season.
One of the stand-out and most talked about changes LVG has made has been moving his captain Wayne Rooney to central midfield. He’s played in that position for 5 games now and has looked like he belongs there. His performance against Newcastle United reminded us of Paul Scholes on song. Comparisons will be made, after all, this club has always been waiting for that World Class midfielder, since the great servant of the game Scholes announced his retirement for the second time.
Not taking anything away from Michael Carrick, who has been the senior statesman ever since, and even though he gets the job done, but he lacks arrogance. United needs a midfield bully like Roy Keane or Bryan Robson.
So, what makes Wayne Rooney tick? Aggression, hard work, his ability to switch from defence to attack in seconds, defence splitting passes, his technical gift to spray long balls around the park, and his natural instinct to move to goal scoring positions in attacking moves. These are traits, which are embodied by Yaya Toure, Cesc Fabregas and Toni Kroos.
Is he ready to go toe to toe against the midfield giants?
A lot of us, United supporters, always wanted this transition to happen faster as this would ensure Wazza would have more control over the game. He is always hungry for the ball and wants to get involved, one finds him heavily involved in defensive duties as well.
The best formation for a player like Rooney to flourish would be the diamond midfield formation, with him playing on the right or left behind the tip, a role to be filled by Juan Mata. He can play behind the No. 10 with Angel Di Maria, partnering him on the other side. This formation requires a strong defensive midfielder who can break play easily. Of the available options, we have Daley Blind, Carrick and Marouane Fellaini, who on their day can be exactly what is required.
However, the problem lies in the fact that they lack that consistency. Not taking anything away from Carrick who was been outstanding since his return. Against better teams, he would struggle and he is not getting younger. Blind has great distribution, but again will take some time to become the player we need him to be in terms of physicality. If Fellaini can bring his game to what it was at his peak in Everton, it could get interesting, but he needs to stay fit and show consistency.
This transition has worked in the past with English legend Frank Lampard as well. Once age caught up, he tailored his style of play to a more withdrawn role, controlling the match. Rooney is not the kind of midfielder, who is meant to break play and make those cracking tackles. He is more of the playmaker, who needs to revolve around that defensive midfielder.
We will need a serious defensive midfielder who Rooney can learn from and blossom under. Similar to what Michael Essien was for Lampard. A good defensive partner gives you that cushion to move forward and also come back and help out without much pressure. A lot of the responsibility is taken away from the creative midfielder when that player is in place.
Rooney needs that player and needs him soon. Carrick controls the game well, but has not always been known for this kind of play. A few names, that come to mind are Kevin Strootman, Nigel De Jong and Sami Khedira.
This setup would give Rooney the freedom to be more creative, as well as support the attack. He has excelled in the No 10 role in the past, playing on the tip of the diamond, but one feels he is better suited and has the right physical attributes to play deeper. Hence, that buy is essential to ensure this change of role.
The best teams in Europe are driven by excellent midfield players like Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso (Bayern Munich), Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira(Real Madrid), Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea) and Yaya Toure and David Silva (Manchester City). If United has to challenge on a bigger stage they will need some real midfield firepower.
This season is the time for the squad to gel together and understand their best partnerships and formations, so for Rooney the midfielder to workout, this change will have to be exercised soon. As it will become one of those tried but didn’t work formulas. Building the team around the Captain should be the priority now as the margins for error against these big teams are extremely less. Louis van Gaal, are you listening?