One of the biggest stories surrounding Manchester United during Louis van Gaal’s first season as manager of the club has been Wayne Rooney or where Rooney should be playing. After naming Rooney the club captain prior to the season, van Gaal has made a habit of moving United’s star man all around the pitch, whether it be using him as a striker, attacking midfielder or holding midfielder.
After using him as a central midfielder for much of the winter to make room for Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao, or both, injuries forced van Gaal re-deploy Rooney as a striker in March. This allowed both Ander Herrera and Juan Mata to come into the team as midfielders and resulted in United playing their best football of the season through four straight games that included wins over Liverpool at Anfield and at home against Manchester City.
While many were (correctly) quick to give credit to the great form of Juan Mata, nevertheless many were playing up the narrative of how good Rooney, and United, have been now that he returned to his favored striker position. The truth was Rooney was fantastic in the first match of this great run, a 3-0 home win vs. Tottenham where he scored one and set up another and United looked better then they had in two years.
Two weeks later against Aston Villa, Rooney scored a goal of the season candidate when he brought down a high Angel di Maria cross with his right foot and sent a laser beam to the top corner on the half volley.
While United kept winning (four straight matches in total) people kept talking about the team finding its form with Rooney as a striker. But here’s what people weren’t talking about, with the exception of the game against Spurs, Wayne Rooney had largely been invisible for United.
So did everyone just agree to not mention that Rooney hasn’t done anything since the Spurs game? Did I miss this or something? #MUFC
— Pauly Kwestel (@pkwestelWFAN) April 26, 2015
Is this some sort of secret that we’re all trying to keep? Like if you bring it up someone will say “shhh things are going well, don’t start causing problems!”
I’ve said for a long time, and have written it many times, Wayne Rooney is the most valuable player Manchester United have. He’s also their best central midfielder and the guy who is most capable of replacing Paul Scholes. Aside from the Tottenham match, Rooney’s best games, and most of his goals this season, have come as a central midfielder.
United’s run of success didn’t come because Rooney was playing better as a striker. It came because playing Rooney as a striker made room for Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Marouanne Fellaini to all be on the pitch at the same time. The latter three of that group have been tremendously influential in most of the goals United scored during their great run. The problem is they haven’t done a great job of linking up and involving Wayne Rooney. This has often led to Rooney being isolated up top and not having as much of an influence on a match as he can. When he plays as a midfielder Rooney is all over the field and always on the ball, making the pass to start the attack. When United are firing on all cylinders they don’t need Rooney in the middle of the field and can play him as a striker and make room for everyone else.
While everyone is quick to point to Rooney moving back to the striker’s position as the move that has allowed United to go on their great run of form, it was actually the return of Michael Carrick that, like so many times before, led to the resurgence of Manchester United.
Man United’s win ratio in the Premier League this season: With Michael Carrick: 72.2% Without Michael Carrick: 37.5% pic.twitter.com/K7Bg7UBRAb
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 26, 2015
When United have Carrick on the team, moving Rooney up to striker makes sense, as it allows the Herrera, Mata, Fellaini triumvirate to stay on the pitch. But when Carrick is unavailable, United would be best served to drop Rooney back into that holding midfield role and using either the carcasses of either van Persie or Falcao up front (they’re in fourth place playing most of the season without strikers anyway so what difference does it make?).
I’m a big fan of Daley Blind, but when he plays as a holding midfielder sometimes he’s tremendous and sometimes he’s invisible, and the truth is United looked far more dangerous with Rooney playing as the holding midfielder against Chelsea than they did with Blind playing there last week vs. Everton.
Wayne Rooney is not only Manchester United’s best player but the heart and soul of the team as well. Rooney has always been willing to do what’s best for the team, whether it be playing wide on the left to accommodate Cristiano Ronaldo, dropping back to an attacking midfielder to accommodate Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie (and later Radamel Falcao) or dropping all the way back to play as a holding midfielder. Not only has he gracefully accepted those roles, he excelled at them.
United have some decisions to make going forward. When Michael Carrick is healthy it’s easy to throw Rooney into his preferred strikers position since that is what’s best for the team. However, with Carrick out injured United must decide what’s best for them–Rooney as a striker, or Rooney being far more involved in the game as a midfielder.