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Manchester United's troubled forward line and their need to get Wayne Rooney firing

Manchester United need a striker. Is Wayne Rooney still one?

Wayne Rooney needs to start firing

As the clock ticks down to the end of the transfer window, Manchester United’s Louis Van Gaal must decide if it is worth taking the gamble of risking the wait until January before he can address his forward line. A move for Barcelona’s Pedro looked set to materialise until Van Gaal called it off and Chelsea stepped in, and a £60 million bid for Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller appears unable to convince the German champions to move away from their insistence that the 25 year old is not for sale.

Behind Van Gaal’s refusal to sanction the move for Pedro is his belief that United are currently well-stocked in wider-areas and his shift from his early-summer concern that his team lacked creativity and speed in support of the designated attackers in the forward line. Despite his worries, Van Gaal ratified the sale of Angel Di Maria to PSG for £46 million and now must decide if his team lack craft enough to re-invest it in a supporting attacker, or in a centre-forward having also seen Robin Van Persie and Radamel Falcao depart.

The re-emergence of Adnan Januzaj, the match-winner at Aston Villa, and the early-season form of the exhilarating Memphis Depay, brilliant in the Champions League play-off first leg win over Club Brugge, as well as the option of calling upon Ashley Young, Juan Mata and even Marouane Fellaini, who scored the vital third goal against Brugge. In the 4-2-3-1 that Van Gaal has started the season with, the Dutchman now has enough options, with a renewed faith in Januzaj and even Ander Herrera or Antonio Valencia on hand to play in an advanced role, to fill the line of 3 behind the striker, who will be Wayne Rooney.

Rooney’s form is a big cause for concern

The form of Rooney, however, will fill Van Gaal with an unease over a position which suddenly United look short in. The forward was unconvincing in the opening day win over Spurs and he also produced an anonymous display in the win at Villa, enjoying just one touch in the opposition penalty area across 90 minutes.

Although he improved against Brugge, Rooney again struggled to stamp his mark as visiting defender Brandon Michele appeared comfortable in his role of marking the 29-year-old who was eventually withdrawn for Fellaini.

Rooney is Van Gaal’s captain and will therefore be involved in the starting XI whenever he is available, but there is a distinct feeling that the goal-scoring burden on the Englishman must be alleviated if United are to produce the consistent form required to challenge for the title. Javier Hernandez has been included by Van Gaal and was involved as a substitute against Brugge, but last year’s loan spell at Real Madrid suggests the manager isn’t fully convinced on the Mexican.

The ability of Depay, who was top-scorer for PSV Eindhoven last season, to play centrally has also be spoken of but with the Dutchman so far used as a left-winger in his opening 3 games for United, it suggests that the manager would be wanting to leave him there.

That could see more opportunities for James Wilson who scored twice in 17 appearances under Van Gaal last term but the manager is likely to want to avoid placing too much of a reliance on the 19-year-old. Rooney scored 12, a club-high, as he played in a variety of roles last season but now fielded regularly as a number 9, Van Gaal is convinced he can return between 25-30 goals this term.

“[Rooney] is our striker. He is also the captain of the team so he shall play a lot of times in the striker’s position. Probably he has to prove it. I have full confidence that he shall do that” said the manager, but the forward will have to improve in sharpness for that confidence to be validated.

Different playing styles has Rooney stifled 

What’s behind his slow start to the season?

Whereas Rooney has been prolific as a number 9 before, most notably under Sir Alex Ferguson in the seasons of 2009-10 and 2011-12 as United were beaten narrowly to the title by Chelsea and Manchester City respectively, as well as for England, but that form has come in teams playing a higher-tempo. Van Gaal’s system, in contrast, is more cautious and the patient build-up allows defenders time to get organised and deny the forward space as he awaits supply.

It explains why United’s winning goal at Villa came from Januzaj’s incisive run beyond the opposition defence from his number 10 position, a feature required to stretch the play in the slower style of Van Gaal. Rooney, utilised as a focal point, is unable to find the room or space clear of his marker as United build, leaving him starved of support as teams challenge United to play through them.

A glorious back-heel flick to Depay, from which the Dutch winger wasted a chance to complete his hat-trick against Brugge, reminded everybody of his quality but that was his creative tendencies shining through.

As the front-man Van Gaal requires, one who latches on to direct balls when they seek to get up the field quickly or to sniff out chances in crowded boxes when playing at a slower pace, it is clear Rooney’s confidence has dropped. Against Spurs it was odd to see Rooney, usually so clinical when a chance is presented, hesitate in-front of goal before Kyle Walker turned the ball into his own net. Such hesitancy certainly won’t get the 25 goals Van Gaal is hoping for.

What United and Van Gaal can do to solve Rooney’s struggles?

It is clear a natural desire to get himself involved in attacking moves by dropping off and creating in withdrawn areas is compromising Rooney’s ability to play as a central front-man, so Van Gaal may have to bow to the growing pressure and complete a deal for an out-and-out striker.

Muller is reportedly being targeted but with Bayern in no position to sell one of their prized assets, he seems to be the wrong option with the clock ticking down to the August 31st deadline. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been told he can leave PSG but whilst he is prolific and a natural fit to Van Gaal’s style, his 33 year of age compounded with his penchant for controversy may deem him too much of a risk.

Van Gaal may even wait for Rooney to adapt to his philosophy and, having appeared on either wing, in central midfield and in multiple positions across the attack having constantly reinvented himself across his 13-year long career, he definitely does have the class and understanding of the game to eventually realise what is being asked of him.

That is the dice Van Gaal must decide if he is willing to roll over the next fortnight; to persist with Rooney as a centre-forward or to seek reinforcements and restore the Englishman to his more familiar role in support of a partner.

It is the decision that will hinge Manchester United’s season. The spotlight will be on Van Gaal, as well as Rooney as it so often does when England’s main striker is suffering a dip in form, to get it right. How they react to it could be the difference between a title challenge and another season cast aside as pretenders. 

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