By Michael King
In an affair that’s become more bizarre than anything to hit the English Premier League in recent history, Wayne Rooney is staying with Manchester United. Is this just another example of manager Sir Alex Ferguson getting his way, or is Rooney’s commitment to the club genuine?
Answers to this question and others are far from evident. But is this behavior surprising from someone who has “Just Enough Education to Perform” tattooed on this right forearm?
Regardless of thoughts on anyone’s intelligence – or maybe emotional intelligence would be more appropriate here – the end of this saga should mark the return to brilliant soccer for Man U. Rooney’s alleged beef with the club surrounded its inability to secure enough talent to adequately complement his own. Certainly recent acquisitions Javier Hernandez, Chris Smalling and Bebe don’t exactly refute Rooney’s claim that United is a club in decline.
But from Man U’s perspective, losing Rooney was the Armageddon scenario. Surely with its brand, resources and, of course, Sir Alex, United would survive and remain competitive in the long term. The decision to sell Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid two summers ago for an obscene amount of money was driven by economics and the desire of the Portuguese international to play in his native Iberia.
However, Ferguson’s willingness to complete that deal was based on the assumption that a healthy and happy Rooney would terrorize opposing defenses for seasons to come. Sir Alex theorized correctly that the Red Devils could survive the loss of Ronaldo’s pace, creativity and free-kick prowess by making Rooney a greater focus of the offense. His emergence into a complete striker last season seemed another example of the Scot being an excellent manager of both people and players.
Not only did the striker add an aerial game to his skill set, but he became even more deadly on the counterattack. Rooney scored 26 goals in EPL competitions last season and was arguably the league’s most valuable player – even over Golden Boot winner Didier Drogba.
It should not be readily dismissed what Rooney means to this team. United has a good deal of scoring talent, perhaps best personified at the moment by Dimitar Berbatov’s long-awaited emergence as a quality striker.
But Rooney, like only a few EPL players, affects what happens on all areas of the pitch. His presence alters midfield possession and the amount of work required by the backline. It’s no accident that in a season where Rooney has not been himself, United has surrendered an average of 1.4 goals per game. Last year – Rooney’s finest as a professional – the Red Devils conceded a league best 0.74 goals per game, while holding opponents scoreless and astounding 19 times.
Naturally, there are mitigating factors, including goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar being one-year away from retirement and the inconsistency of United’s back four.
But the club’s match against Fulham on Aug. 22 is a classic example. In the game, Man U. took a 2-1 lead then watched as the Cottagers crawled back to tie the score, stopping a United penalty in the process. Fulham began packing the box late in the game, allowing midfielders and defenders to go forward. That was the kind of offensive-minded play that created the set-piece opportunity where Fulham leveled.
With Rooney on the field, this likely wouldn’t have happened. Such a potent counterattacking threat would have forced the Cottagers to remain more conservative even in their attempt to tie the match. Defensive caution preventing the team from taking offensive risks: this is the value of Wayne Rooney to Manchester United.
The team we observed for about two months without an in-form Rooney is still among the better squads in the league. However, United is not challenging for the league title without his presence on the pitch.
One of the other unsettled issues, in addition to the Liverpool native’s frequent change of heart, is his health. With complaints of a balky ankle, Rooney could be sidelined up to another three weeks, multiple media sources report. This news leads one to wonder if United will be effectively out of the title race once he returns to form.
Nonetheless, Man U fans should rejoice, but again, only for the moment. Their prized striker did just sign a five-year pact. Yet given how meaningless player contracts are in today’s soccer world, it wouldn’t be surprising if Rooney fails to play out the entire length of the agreement.
Things appear to be improving for the EPL’s largest club, but there’s more to be done to consistently field a quality squad. Midfield and defensive concerns can now occupy Ferguson’s mind with his most important player satisfied in Manchester – for the moment.
Michael King is a contributing writer for TheSoccerGuysOnline.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.