When Wayne Rooney celebrated 10 years as a Manchester United player two weeks ago, the club’s official website posted a video montage of some of his best moments in a United shirt, and as you’d imagine, there were plenty of them.
It was a beautiful trip down memory lane, allowing the viewer to relive some moments of pure joy and amazement, brought to us by a player who has since gone on to become a leading player for both club and country, and looks set to surpass the great Sir Bobby Charlton as the leading goalscorer for both Manchester United and England. But once it was done and I came back to reality, I couldn’t help but be tinged with sadness as I asked myself the question–What has happened to Wayne Rooney?
A decade earlier, the 18 year old Everton sensation was the most sought-after teenager in all of Europe, following an incredible performance in Euro 2004, where England bowed out in the quarter finals to Portugal, a match where Rooney went off injured after suffering a broken metatarsal. Blessed with incredible vision, dribbling ability, a ferocious shot and clinical finishing, he established himself as one of the leading attackers in the tournament, but it was his directness and aggression that really set him apart from the rest of the pack. His willingness to pick the ball up and run at players with raw pace saw him decimate defences, while his aggressive nature meant he was more than a handful for the opposition throughout the match, despite his tender age.
All these qualities persuaded Sir Alex Ferguson to part with a then-record fee for a teenager, £25.6 million, to sign Rooney, a player he described as “the best young player this country has seen in the past 30 years”. His potential football-wise was limitless, and as his physique would only improve as his development continued, there was no doubt amongst the United fans that he would go on to be one of the most lethal and powerful forwards in the game, a nightmare for defenders.
Fast forward to the present, and the Wayne Rooney of now is a completely different player to what he was ten years ago; you could argue that he is the antithesis of his younger self. The powerful, driving runs which tore defences apart are a thing of the past, and he even struggles to get past defenders in a one-on-one situation, sometimes avoiding them altogether. The movement in behind the opposition’s back-line has significantly reduced too, as he is content to drop deep and pick up possession of the ball. This has seen him go from being one of the most lethal counter-attacking players in the game to a player who is often guilty of slowing play down. The directness in his play which separated him from the rest has deserted him, allowing him to be marked out of the game by top quality defenders more often than not. The vigours of the English top flight seem to have affected his body, and it is probable that he has already passed his physical peak. He simply isn’t as explosive and unpredictable as he was at one point of time.
Make no mistake, Wayne Rooney is a top, top player. He possesses immaculate vision and an incredible range of passing whilst being a clinical finisher, as his stats show. With 218 goals in 446 appearances, he is United’s third highest goalscorer, averaging a goal almost every two games. He is just 31 goals off Sir Bobby Charlton’s long standing record, and considering he is only 28 years of age, it’s only a matter of time till he makes that record his own. Last season he became the first player in Premier League history to record double figures for both goals and assists in five different seasons, which is evidence of his ability as both goal scorer and provider.
All in all, Wayne Rooney is world class, but he could have been out of this world, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The fact that he hasn’t lived up to his true potential is an absolute tragedy for both Manchester United and England. At one point, however, he was very much on that path, as he showed in the 2009/2010 season.
Following the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid that summer, the pressure was on Rooney to step up to the plate and become the main man at United, and he responded like a man who’d been starving for such an opportunity, having played second fiddle to Ronaldo in the last couple of seasons. It was during this season that I had the chance to visit Old Trafford to watch United play for the first (and so far, only) time, against Wigan Athletic. On what was a bitterly cold December night, United thrashed the visitors 5-0, with Antonio Valencia scoring once and assisting thrice against his former team. But is was another player’s name on everyone’s lips at the end of the game, and rightly so.
Rooney had produced a master-class, scoring the first, his 15th of the season, and playing in Valencia with a delicate through ball for the fifth. He was mesmerising that night, his incredible passing range and movement causing the Wigan defence all sorts of problems; he was simply on another level compared to the others on the pitch, and had captured my imagination. The fans knew they were seeing a master at his absolute best, and there was a buzz of excitement whenever he touched the ball. United’s boy wonder was showing just what he was capable of, proving to the world that he deserved to be mention in the same breath as Ronaldo and Messi.
Wazza would scale unprecedented heights during the course of the season, finishing with 34 goals, his best ever tally at the time. Some of the highlights were the four goals over two legs against AC Milan in the round of 16 of the Champions League, scoring four against Hull City in the league, his powerful counter-attacking goal against Arsenal at the Emirates, and coming off the bench to score the winner against Aston Villa in the League Cup final.
However, he would miss the business end of the season when he suffered that injury against Bayern Munich in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final at the Allianz Arena. He would recover in time for the second leg, but went off shortly after the hour mark, showing obvious signs of discomfort. United would go on to be eliminated at that stage, and Rooney’s absence saw us surrender the league title to Chelsea by a single point. He would then head to South Africa for the World Cup, which would end as an unmigitated disaster for him and England; devoid of fitness, he couldn’t muster a single goal in the tournament as England were humiliated in the round of 16 by Germany, and was routinely made the scapegoat for the Three Lions’ failure. Life had come full circle for Wazza in a matter of months.
The following season saw him engulfed in a series of scandals about his private life, which drastically affected his performances on the pitch. It was during this time when he infamously submitted a transfer request, asking to leave United because of the club’s perceived lack of ambition in the transfer market, with rumors of a move to neighbours Man City doing the rounds. He would eventually quash all speculation and sign a new contract barely a week later, but sadly, he would never go back to being the player he was before that fateful night in Munich.
Since then, Rooney has gradually deteriorated, despite his career-best 36 goal haul in the 2011/2012 season. The lack of competition within the squad saw him take his foot off the pedal, which severely affected his fitness and resulted in him losing the cutting edge in his play that made him so lethal in his younger days, while numerous injuries haven’t helped his cause either. Interestingly, there is a striking similarity between Rooney’s career over the last five years and Manchester United toward the end of Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure; both have been content to sit back and rest on their laurels while their competitors have surged ahead of them, and they’ve gone from being lethal exponents of the counter attack to being devoid of pace and directness in their game- an incredible fall from grace.
Now, Rooney finds himself in a very different situation for both club and country; the competition for places is immense. He will now have to compete with Robin van Persie and new signing Radamel Falcao, two incredible, world-class strikers, for the striker position/s at United, while Juan Mata will challenge him for the number 10 slot. For England, the Liverpool duo of Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling are developing into top quality forwards, and are his biggest threats for the role of the main striker and number 10 respectively. He can no longer afford to take things easy as he once used to. In addition to this, his relationship with both sets of fans is amicable at best. A second transfer request, toward the end of Sir Alex’s reign, has seen his reputation further tarnished amongst the United fans, while the English fans have become increasingly frustrated with his failure to reach his high standards at a major tournament, though it hasn’t been his fault completely. Under these circumstances, however, Rooney has been given a lifeline, in many ways- he is now captain of both Manchester United and England.
The departures of Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra from United in the summer, and the retirements of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard from the international scene has resulted in both captaincy slots becoming vacant, and Rooney is the best choice for both roles. This added responsibility changes everything for him, and he is now an even bigger role model than he was before. He can no longer afford to throw his toys out of the pram once things do not go his way like he used to earlier; he simply has to dig deep and get on with it, or his reputation will be severely damaged. After all the hard work he has put in to become captain of a club like Manchester United as well as England, the last thing Rooney would like is to be remembered as a man who was an absolute failure as a captain.
The signing of Falcao also shows that despite being named captain, Rooney will face a tough task to simply make the starting line-up for United. It is the same scenario with England, and Roy Hodgson will be forced to play him out of position if Sturridge and Sterling offer better options up front. With both teams set to switch to a much more adventurous style with emphasis on directness and counter-attacking, he has to find a way to employ that directness in his play once more. As captain, he will be expected to drive both club and country forward, but to do so he must drive himself forward in the first place. This gives Rooney absolutely no other choice but to work hard and improve himself so that he can come close to, or even scale the heights he had previously reached in his career, in order to do justice to his role for club and country. A failure to do so will see him lose his place in the team because of the strength of the competition, something he can ill afford; being relegated to the bench despite being captain will be a massive dent to his personal pride, something which will only serve as further motivation to him.
Will captaincy help Wayne Rooney rediscover the player he once was? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure; he will be more motivated than ever before.