It goes without saying that the loss of one of your star players, a man who scored 35 goals last season and is currently the club’s 4th highest goalscorer of all time, should be a cause rather than a cure for managerial headache. But when Sir Alex Ferguson analyses the situation, he may feel differently.
It was already well documented before Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Fulham on Saturday, that Wayne Rooney’s opening game performance at Everton was disappointing (although the same could be said for many of his team mates). Indeed, his manager’s decision to bench him for the Cottagers’ visit was seen by many as a necessary kick up the backside. For a long time, Rooney seemed to have near undroppable status. Bouts of poor form and even on pitch strops at team mates, which seem to have surfaced in the last 2 years, went without significant punishment. Now, this may not be the case.
Rooney’s two preferred positions are as the Number 9 or the Number 10. Goalscorer or playmaker. The reason for his undroppable status was that he was by far the best option in either position. Summer acquisitions have changed this. Robin Van Persie, the only player in the Premier League to score more than Rooney last season, is at the very least his equal as a Number 9. Shinji Kagawa, last season’s Bundesliga Player Of The Year, offers a far more fluid and skilful option as a Number 10. Both have had excellent starts to their United careers and this is the reason for Sir Alex’s headache.
It seems folly to change a winning and attractive combination, but so is leaving out a player of Rooney’s calibre and experience. He could of course be moved into a wide forward position (i.e. David Villa), but United have a plethora of wing options already. Increased competition is a good thing, but it depends on how well the resources can be handled (particularly when one of them happens to be an A-lister). The emergence of Javier Hernandez in 2010/11 would surely have motivated Dimitar Berbatov, but it didn’t make a blind bit of difference as the Mexican’s form and ability to increase his team’s cohesion meant he regularly kept his place. Hernandez then went through the same thing himself last year due to the emergence of Danny Welbeck. Generally speaking, there will always be 2 forwards who play the bulk of the games. People like to point out that the Treble winning side of 1999 had 4 forwards who didn’t mind rotation (although there was still a clear first choice of Yorke and Cole) but that was a very different situation. Teddy Sheringham was 33, whilst Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had the rare personality of somebody who was happy to play Supersub despite his considerable talent. You wouldn’t say that about Rooney, Van Persie or Kagawa would you?
Some United fans have bemoaned the loss of the raging bull Rooney, who could turn a match in an instant and terrorise opposing defences with pace, power and skill. He seems to have gone from somebody who drew comparisons with Gazza and George Best, to somebody who’s “just” effective. I say that in inverted commas because we shouldn’t devalue what he currently is. He’s become one of the world’s top centre forwards. His goal record over the last 2 years for United stands at an extremely impressive 51 in 86, and the majority of managers in the game would snap him up in an instant if they could. However, there is the nagging sense of regret that he could, and maybe still can be, so much more. Whilst his finishing has improved immensely, his all round game has deteriorated over the last year. How often does somebody score 35 goals and still not get voted as his club’s player of the season? That says as much about him as it does for the actual winner, with all due respect to the brilliant Antonio Valencia.
Rooney’s nasty looking gash is expected to keep him out for around a month, which is undoubtedly robbing both club and country of a world-class option. But had he not suffered the injury, that may have been all he was at Old Trafford for a while – an option. His lay-off temporarily eases the selection dilemna for his manager. Of course, loss of form/injuries to other players are all perfectly likely, which means he could get back in the team and keep himself there with good performances. However, should Van Persie and Kagawa continue to flourish in his absence, his return will bring back this unfamiliar headache for his manager.