Throw catch throw catch throw catch throw catch throw catch. I’m juggling (semi-competently), by the way. When I was a kid, my Dad could juggle and it looked cool so I wanted to learn how to do it myself. I’m going quite well, the throws are all at a good height and good space away from my body, meaning that I don’t have to be waving my arms about to catch the ball which then throws the throws out of place which in turn makes where I’m catching them go everywhere etc etc.
I start to think about throwing good throws to keep the run going. Throw catch throw catch throw catch throw. I’m losing it. I can feel my arm tighten, it’s movement now limited as I stress to it where it needs to go. The trajectory of the throws are getting messier now, and with my other arm I try to compensate, and end up over-compensating. Too high. Too far to the right. Not far enough to the right. Throw catch throw catch throw bump drop.
I’m no brain scientist, but I think it’s fairly received wisdom that your unconscious mind can do an awful lot at one time, which you then struggle to do if you try and think about it all consciously. Breathing gets weird when you start thinking about actually doing it. ‘Overthinking’ is a thing because they’re often tasks that would be handled by part of our subconscious.
“There’s a winger at [Shamrock] Rovers,” Damien Duff said on his episode of The Big Interview with Graham Hunter “and he’s got a lot of ability y’know, but, like, I struggle coaching him because I don’t know how I did it.
“So, like you [Hunter], said, it’s innate, I just kind of taught myself on the street, I don’t know how it kinda happened and now, like, when the manager asks me to go work with him for twenty minutes I’m walking across thinking “I don’t really know what to say here because I don’t know how I did it””.
I would guess that every footballer’s game is largely instinctual. It’s not just the street footballers driving at defences; it’s the defenders checking on their own and the striker’s positioning; it’s the ‘cultured’ midfielders constantly checking where their team-mates are and knowing how to hit the pass to them.
This is all to say, basically, that the problem with Wayne Rooney in midfield is that he has to think about what to do for most of the game. He consciously has to turn the cogs and weigh up options, rather than being able to let his subconscious do most of the work for him.
Because when he acts subconsciously, he does good things like these:
— mark (@ETNAR_uk) September 6, 2016
Although, in the second clip, the pass, perhaps part of the reason Walcott was offside when the pass was played was because he was thinking, just a little, there’s a small pause as he processes that a pass is on before he plays it:
— mark (@ETNAR_uk) September 6, 2016
This is why pundits have said that Rooney’s best position will be the one in which he plays most. With regular coaching and gametime experience, he’ll start to get used to it, it’ll start to be natural. It’s not that Rooney is a bad midfielder or is unbelievably unsuited to it. He has some of the base traits that would make him it – pretty good technique, decent vision, a certain level of confidence and drive – it’s more the case that these attributes haven’t adapted to the role yet.
There is, of course, an argument to be made about whether it is worth (him or the team) taking the time to let Rooney adapt or whether it would be better for Manchester United and England to replace him with someone else. I think at United, with in the attacking midfield area and with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in front of him who likes to drop deep too, it’s worth having Rooney as a starter, for the time being at least, because the role allows him to be attacking in a way he is natural at more often.
If Rooney is to play effectively behind the striker then it probably needs to be a striker who, like Zlatan, drops and allows Rooney to rotate up into more attacking positions, and this is unlikely to happen with England considering the striking options available. With the national team then, it may be that Rooney’s presence as captain (whatever that may mean and as evasively fluid as that may sound) means that playing him in midfield isn’t as large a step down as it might be on performance alone. Allardyce’s apparent policy of giving him a free role might just be to try and help play into the best parts of Rooney’s instincts.
Rooney is not a natural in midfield, or in a primarily creative number 10 role. He could be, if he grows into it, but at this stage in his career it’s edging towards unlikely (even for the optimists). As a pure striker, there are generally better options than him, and in the modern game there isn’t necessarily the space for a more traditional second striker. In those positions he’s not a natural at, he’s just a bit below the level that would be wanted or required.
He’s not abysmal, he’s not a donkey, and at this point in the narrative he might even be better than the press he’s getting makes him out to be (even if some ex-pro pundits gloss over the less good aspects of his performances). He’s not a natural in certain positions, but is valuable enough, ‘politically’ and as a legitimate figure within the squad, to want to accommodate. He’s unfortunate that England’s system doesn’t include a role he’s best suited to. He’s fairly good, even in midfield. But fairly good isn’t quite good enough.