We are entering the business end of Wayne Rooney’s 10th Manchester United season. Now a senior player, he is captain of club and country and a regular figure of United’s line up week in week out. Saying this however, he appears to be the subject of Louis Van Gaal’s team selection experiments, having been deployed in 4 different positions this season: out and out striker, just off the front, right side of a midfield diamond and, most recently (albeit due to injuries), holding midfield.
Is his versatility going against him? Or is Van Gaal not sure of his best position? For me, and many other United fans, his best position is obvious – up front.
The 29 year old is currently United’s second top goal scorer this season. This immediately suggests he is effective as far up the pitch as possible. What further backs up this notion is that he is just 25 goals off being Manchester United’s all-time top goal scorer and just 4 off earning the same feat for England – two huge accolades. So why would Van Gaal change an accomplished striker’s position so much?
The immediate and rational explanation would be to accommodate for other players like Radamel Falcao and the manager’s much-trusted compatriot Robin Van Persie (who has looked a shadow of his former self since the 2012/13 season). This partnership, on paper, would fill any fan with excitement, but the reality is – it’s not working on grass.
Rooney’s versatility and appetite for the game makes him an easy option to move around – as Paul Scholes alluded to this week: “you’ll get at least 7/10 from Wayne every week no matter where you play him.”
We know Van Gaal loves versatile players, but in my opinion, the appetite and energy Rooney has in abundance is blaringly vacant in a current strike partnership looking old and static. And with zero attempts on target in 2015, all Rooney’s natural qualities are not exploited in the middle of the park.
Perhaps Rooney, similarly to Ander Herrera (who struggles to make the starting 11 despite good performances), is a victim of the summer transfer activity where there was a focus on attacking creativity as opposed to balance and solidity.
Due to the overload of attacking talent at his disposal, the manager is now piecing the puzzle together by finding roles for players, as opposed to the right players for the right roles. This, along with an injury crisis, has been demonstrated by the chopping and changing of formations therefore shrinking the impact key players such as Rooney & Di Maria can have when in the right position.
Why do I believe Rooney shouldn’t play just off the front? Juan Mata. The Spanish playmaker whose performances and statistics make him almost undroppable stakes a strong claim for the number 10 role. Additionally, as history shows, Rooney as part of a front 2 has proved pivotal in many a title success – partnerships namely with Van Nistelrooy, Ronaldo, Tevez, Berbatov, Chicharito and most recently Van Persie.
With James Wilson a very promising prospect for the future, I personally feel the time is right for a fresh strike force and Rooney/Falcao’s mix of industry, movement and finishing superiority in front of Mata’s eye for a killer ball could bring just what Van Gaal is looking for. This would also give other regularly benched midfielders, who are more than competent, the chance for more game time whilst allowing Mata & Di Maria to play their proven most effective roles. With Van Persie’s fitness thrown into doubt for the visit to Preston on Monday, it could be the perfect chance to test this partnership.
Despite not quite finding the right mix yet, I have every faith Van Gaal will get it right and be a success at Manchester United, however with a very tough run of games fast approaching and competition intensifying, recent levels of performance will need to improve if they want to be playing in the Champions League next season.