WAYNE ROONEY IS many things to many men. He can dribble, pass, shoot, track back, mark at set pieces, leap and head the ball. But does that mean he can play in midfield?
Plenty have been quick to slate his performance on Wednesday because he was not Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, or Anders Iniesta. Yet, he was never likely to model himself on that artistic trio. Those men from La Masia were brought up with the one unshakeable Barcelona ethos; Rooney’s influences come from closer to his own home: Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes.
In the commentary box during Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Otelul Galati, Ray Wilkins repeatedly– and tediously– drew the comparison with Scholes. When Rooney first arrived from Everton, all raw and fresh faced to partner Ruud Van Nistelrooy, most United fans saw him as the natural successor to their “ginger magician.”
His favoured position was in “the hole” behind a centre forward. His work rate was undeniable, as was his range of passing. Perhaps though, at times, his tackling could be rash, verging on the stupid. A little more control and composure was required in midfield… sorry, was I talking about Scholes or Rooney?
During Wednesday’s Champions League tie, Ken Early– Newstalk’s football corresdpondant– waited only a matter of minutes before making a pejorative comparison between Rooney and Liverpool’s captain.
He referred to the home side’s No10 as “a little, fat Steven Gerrard” and criticised him for spraying 60-yard passes that had little chance of reaching their target.
24 hours later, sitting in the office outside his Off The Ball studio, Early must have come close to spitting out his coffee like some flabbergasted character in a Hanna Barbera cartoon. John Giles had come on the line to give his opinion:
“He has the making of a world class midfield player,” said the Leeds United and Ireland legend.
Giles is not one to make rash statements; his catchphrase could be “it’s difficult to say, Bill.” He will offer caveats in his punditry, like “well, I didn’t see the whole game,” and habitually seeks more evidence before committing a foot to either side of the fence.
For this reason alone, his effusive praise of Rooney was enough to make you sit up and take notice.
“I played plenty of matches against (Ferenc) Puskas, (Alfredo) Di Stefano… very luckily, I played with Denis Law and I played against Jimmy Greaves and Kenny Dalglish. I don’t think any of those players were capable of playing in the middle of the field as well as Rooney did last night.”
“He was a revelation to me” Giles added, “I always suspected he could play there but I never seen him do it until last night and he is by far and away the best midfield player in the Premiership.”
You could almost hear Early’s jaw hit the pavement as he tweeted:
Meanwhile, Giles was still waxing lyrical:
“Scott Parker is playing very well at the moment for Spurs, Modric is a good player but I think Rooney would be better than any of them.”
Unfortunately, there is precious little evidence to go on: a handful of half matches and a European group game against third-rate opposition. Nobody would argue that Rooney has been at the coalface of a world class engine room, but Giles emphatically maintained that he had seen enough.
“When you see a team like (Otelul Galati), what I’m looking for in a player like Rooney is the positions [sic] he takes up to receive the ball– it doesn’t matter who you’re playing against. You either have that or you don’t have it.”
Alex Ferguson, too, was impressed, telling reporters he was pleased by the discipline of the man with the odd-looking fringe. However, Ferguson was eager to add that Rooney’s selection in that position was down more to a lack of options than some grand, 25th anniversary plan.
“I thought he did well but I’m not putting any marker down for that position now because it depends on what is available. I think he’s scored 10 goals so far so you want him to be in positions where he can get you more goals, and I think that position is where he normally plays.”
Ferguson was lamenting the absence of Tom Cleverley, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick. Yet, it is the 69-year-old’s own errors that have brought such a paucity of options in the centre of the pitch.
For too long he relied on Scholes and persisted with Anderson, Carrick and Giggs. Too often in the four years since signing Owen Hargreaves he has turned a blind eye to the role denoted “CM”. He preferred to splash what little cash he had available in other areas.
The key lies with Cleverley. Whether his inclusion the in the first team was overdue or a case of perfect timing is a moot point. Single-handed, he has been able to turn United’s central midfield from a ragged retreating platoon into a stylish, accurate weapon. He even makes Anderson transform into something useful.
Keeping Cleverley fit is vital if Ferguson is to field a team capable of playing at full tilt. Without him, the contingency plan should be enforced, with Rooney re-aligned to keep the midfield functional.
The Merseysider is many things to many men, but at 26, he is about to hit his best form as a forward and should only be dropped back to halfway in cases of footballing emergency.
At least until his pace deteriorates and his hair starts to fall out… again.
So, do agree with John Giles – Is Rooney the best in the league?