Sir Alex Ferguson is not a stupid man, so when he plays a player ‘out of position’, it’s because he knows best. He moved Alan Smith from a top goalscorer to a committed central midfielder when he transferred to Manchester United just under a decade ago and a similar transition is taking place with Wayne Rooney now. Though Smith and Rooney were different types of strikers, and will be different types of midfielders, it is worth noting that this is not a radically new strategy from Ferguson and that these types of experiments tend to work out for the best.
That’s not to say that anyone is doubting Rooney’s capability as a central midfielder. The general reaction (judged nowadays from Twitter rather than the back pages the next day) was a United fan love-in, dreams of top strikers joining in the summer to fill the space left by Rooney filling little Red Devils’ heads. It seems an easy and obvious change of position as well; in recent years Rooney has been playing the kind of passes usually seen by Iniesta or Scholes, and he’s always been eager to track back to help out his defence.
But, when you look back to the former Evertonian in his youth, you see a much different player than the one you see now. Early Rooney was young, quick, strong and had an eagerness and appetite that matched his ability. He was a snarling lion and the ball was his prey; when he had it, he could do what he wanted with it, and when he didn’t he would charge around the pitch until he got it back. He was a talisman, a youthful spearhead, very much a ‘Harry’. Using Harry Potter as a footballing personality test, ‘Harry’s charge and lead, usually by example; ‘Hermione’s plan and work complicated, seemingly impossible magic; and ‘Ron’s sit back dependably, allowing Harry and Hermione to do their thing.
Of course, these can cross over, the magnificent passing but quiet demeanours of Iniesta and Scholes leave them as a Hermione-Ron cross-breed but they rarely change their spots completely. Can you imagine Messi becoming a Harry instead of a Hermione, leading Barcelona, shouting at his team-mates in the way that Ronaldo does? Can you imagine it going the other way, with Ronaldo sitting back and serving just to supply his team-mates, going from a Harry to a Ron? Of course not, yet this is the type of transition that Rooney is making.
In a team, any team, a decent balance of these three types is needed. In a top level midfield, you need players who are willing to track back and defend and players who can sit back when the team is attacking as well. There is a large element of trust in football, wherever on the pitch you play. A goalkeeper must trust his defenders to cover for him if he comes out for a corner, and the defenders must trust him to make a save if they make a mistake. One-twos rely on trust too, both players must trust that their colleague will either be, or place the ball, in the right area, otherwise the move falls apart. When Rooney played the ball over the top of the Aston Villa defence with the score still (momentarily) at 1-0, he trusted Robin van Persie to run onto the pass otherwise, far from being a fantastic assist, he would have looked like a fool.
For an attack to work, it needs to trust that the rest of the team will be there to halt a counter-attack. Rooney himself has demonstrated this superbly in the past, whenever he has been tracking back to his own penalty area instead of staying in his own position, ready to receive the ball, it has been because he isn’t able to trust his own defence to break up the opposition attack. Because he can’t be sure that his colleagues are capable of defending themselves, he feels the need to join them, even though this often means that when the team do win the ball back, they have no-one there to start their own attack.
Maybe Wayne Rooney was always a Ron, merely masquerading as a Harry; after all, you don’t get many strikers who, given the choice between helping out their right-back and staying at the half-way line, would choose the former instead of the latter. But I think Rooney could have been a truly great, world class striker, as prolific as Henry, Shearer or Andy Cole, if he had just changed his mind-set slightly to make him more single-minded, more of a ‘Harry’. Why then, with goals and glory galore all possible, is he instead becoming a ‘Ron’ of a midfielder?
It could be because he hasn’t proven to be a world-class striker; a good one, yes, but not in the same league as Henry and Shearer (more here: http://www.sportlobster.com/mrkthmpsn under ‘Was Rooney ever a world-class striker?). Is this down to mind-set or ability? Personally, I think this is clearly because of mind-set, he has shown himself to be separated from those great strikers by his determination to help his team defend. Also, fitness is an issue, as Rooney is not the youthful powerhouse he once was. Giggs has recently made changes in his game to prolong his career because, as we would expect, he does not have the speed he used to now he is in his thirties.
Rooney, though, is 27. He should be in the prime of his fitness but is making the kind of transition not normally seen until players are in their twilight years. Accusations have been levelled at Rooney before that he is not fit enough so is this the reason that he is taking a step back? I think that the move of position is more to do with fitness than it is to free up a space for a top European striker because, had Rooney followed the trajectory we thought he would, he would be one.
The partnership with Carrick will be a good one – both players can defend to a reasonable standard; can certainly attack; can hold the ball up; and play fantastic, killer passes. The move will require a personality switch, from a ‘Harry’ leading the line to a ‘Ron’ supplying it but this shouldn’t be a problem for Rooney. In many ways, the position switch seems to make perfect sense – Ferguson can buy Lewandowski/Falcao/whichever other rumour you believe while at the same time gaining a good midfielder; Rooney gets to play his ‘natural’ game without having to force his fitness; and United fans get to look forward to their 21st league title. But, considering his age and what he could have become, it does seem an odd move. Wayne Rooney, who could have been a world class Harry, is instead becoming a top-level Ron.