Friday, November 4, 2011

Rooney must play forward for United to succeed

Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons
Wayne Rooney's move into the midfield has won him plaudits. He played in a central role against Everton last Saturday and again in midweek when United hosted Romanian minnows Otelul Galati in the Champions League. It's no secret he is United's best player, comfortably leads the squad in "bastard factor", possesses the best creative skills of anyone on the team and, alongside the slowly-self-inflating Anderson, demonstrates easily the best passing range and accuracy.

Those same plaudits shouldn't be levied on Sir Alex Ferguson for deploying him in the middle of the park. Sir Alex, understandably, when faced with starting Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher again as creative-in-name-only hubs, opted for the Scouser and the Brazilian in midfield, in hopes of kick-starting a faltering squad. Fletcher remains the team's best midfield negator - it must be galling for SAF to think that his second best option is his star striker.

In this, his twenty-fifth anniversary of taking control of England's most demonic football club, Sir Alex should have earned the right to experiment and the respect of both journalists and blogosphere to cut him some slack. But moving Rooney further back the pitch is robbing Peter to pay Paul in a very real - and ultimately self-defeating - sense. With Rooney shielding the defence from downpitch, there aren't the quality talented options forward of the ball able to capitalise on his industry and creative skills.

As a midfielder, he plays very good long balls to width players Nani, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia only to see a forward corps of Berbatov, Owen (!) and Chicharito (for all his wonderful goalscoring prowess) haven't been able to take advantage of the right spaces. Both Berbatov and Hernandez are great "fox in the box" types and Berbatov's linkup play has been languidly fluid in the past, but he appears utterly shorn of confidence and guile. More poignantly, when Danny Welbeck returns, he is unlikely to combine well with Berbatov or Owen - the in-form England man's best hopes for a successful partnership rest on Rooney and the Little Pea.

As crazy as it would have sounded six weeks ago, Manchester United needs Wayne Rooney up front more than it does in midfield. Given a dearth of World Class mids, how is this the case? The answer lies in health: Tom Cleverley is still to return fully from injury, Darren Fletcher continues to recover from illness/injury/zombification and Ryan Giggs has featured as often as one would expect any other 38-year old to play. Last year, much of United's creativity came from the wing play of Nani and, when healthy, Valencia. It's time to entrust them - and new boy Young - with reinvigorating United's staid and stagnant offense.

Ferguson hasn't taken this decision lightly and he isn't channelling Claudio Ranieri. He's fully aware that best results are obtained when playing your best player in his best position, ie. where he can do the most damage. Perhaps the difficulty is in that still no-one knows what Wayne Rooney's best position is - including Wayne Rooney. It's unquestionably as a forward, but of what type? As target man, trequartista or playing closely off said target man? For United he is too often the locus of focus; for England he has played best working with bulkiers player like Emile Heskey. When allowed to do his thing, he plays spectacular football - and did so earlier this season in partnership with Welbeck.

No matter what reasons exist for the switch, this is likely to be a short-term move for England's best player. When the United squad regains full fitness, Ferguson may be able to pull his Rooney out of the dike. United's depth, so vaunted only weeks ago, remains untested and possibly even fragile at the highest levels. Manchester City gain breathing space with every steam-rolled scalp they collect. If year twenty-five is to bring about title thirteen, Rooney must play forward.

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