A certain player is being talked about in the media as the unlikely solution to England’s midfield predicament. Not a wonderkid who’s stepped up from nowhere and taken the league by storm, nor someone who’s been on the periphery and had a point to prove. It’s in fact none other than the England and Manchester United captain himself, Wayne Rooney.
The idea has been discussed again over the weekend. After Manchester United’s FA Cup win on Saturday, in which Rooney was named Man of the Match in numerous news outlets, followed by England’s narrow friendly win over Turkey, several suggested England line-ups have appeared which features Rooney as part of the midfield in a diamond or 4-2-3-1 formation.
Certain people will tell you — and have told me — they saw this coming all along. Their sophisticated understanding of the game made them know Rooney would always end up in midfield. They point to his key attributes being those of a perfect midfield player. I’ve heard so much of this over the weekend to the point of nausea.
It’s hardly rocket science. Considering Rooney typically plays in the number 10 position, but likes to drop deep to get the ball of his centre-halves and isn’t averse to tracking back — often unnecessarily — it isn’t a great surprise to see him playing a few games further back later in his career when his team has been short of options there.
I remember how I’ve had to fill in at centre-back for the odd game, and often do in training matches. At my level, it’s a common problem to have an overload of attackers and midfielders in your squad, as everyone thinks he’s a playmaker or midfield dynamo. If a defender or two is missing, one of the more defensive-minded players has to drop back.
With my tendency to protect the back four, cut out passing lanes and help transition play from defence to midfield, I’ve been pushed into the centre of defence now and then — despite being a terrible header of the ball for a tall lad — and am likely to play more games there when I’m older and finally decide I can’t be bothered to run so much. But I was aware of this years ago.
That’s almost where the similarities will end between Rooney and myself, but the one that remains is we’ll both struggle to cope with certain intricacies that demand greater expertise in a position once playing at a certain level. For me that might be a game against a team in the fourth tier of non-league rather than the seventh, for Rooney it could be the later stages of a major tournament. That is to say, we’re setting ourselves up for a mighty fall — once again — with this idea that a reinvented Wayne Rooney will be England’s hero this summer.
It sounds like I’m being harsh considering the praise Rooney has received for his display on Saturday. For what it’s worth, I don’t think he was anywhere as good as people are making out, and certainly wasn’t my Man of the Match — he was decent, but nothing to get too excited about. He’s shown he can do a job for you in the middle.
It’s fine to have him in there against a team like Crystal Palace who will sit deep, let you carry the ball from defence and drag their attacking wingers back, completely isolating their lone striker. He’ll always get plenty of the ball and be in space as it’ll keep coming back to him once cleared. It could also work against England’s group stage opponents in France. But in a potential quarter or semi-final against a Spain, Germany, Italy or France etc. who’ll keep the ball from us? Just no.
A big part of United’s win was Maroune Fellaini being pretty much man-marked by one of Palace’s defensive midfielders, Milé Jedinak, which allowed Juan Mata to come inside and create an overload with Rooney and Michael Carrick, helped by Palace’s Yohan Cabaye naively chasing the ball at times and his teammate James McArthur lacking the positional sense to fill the gaps quickly enough. As a result, United controlled the midfield for most of the game.
That’s one of our problems. We look at a player performing well in a role for his club and think “yes, that’ll work” without realising we might not have the same players around him or the same gameplan that let him be so effective. It’s like in Brazil in 2014 where we largely tried to copy Liverpool’s system that took them to 2nd in the Premier League that season, with the English core of their team — Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge — but without their best and most important player, Luis Suárez.
We had no-one to spearhead counter-attacks from the front like him, make the same runs or drop into the same space when another attacker ran beyond him, and couldn’t get the ball forward quickly enough as a result. We exited the tournament in last place in our group, with one point from our three games.
Rooney’s new midfield role and the possibility of him playing there for England has been of interest to me, so I watched Saturday’s final with interest. Here are a few notes I made during the game (translated from shorthand into readable English):
- 17: Rooney makes wrong decision to pass into Fellaini with the lane cut out, Palace win the ball and United’s attackers can’t recover to prevent overload. Rooney shows lack of awareness to prevent pass into Delaney on halfway line, Blind has to step out of defence but can’t get close enough, Smalling is left one-on-one with Wickham and caught flat-footed, forcing him to make the foul.
- 81: Mata picks ball up from Blind and drags Souaré with him, creating space. Jedinak presses Mata, McArthur doesn’t cover round allowing Fellaini to wonder into good position. McArthur checks too late and space opens up for Carrick, Rooney advances unopposed, Palace panic, Rooney runs forward, McArthur slips as off balance which has also exposed Jedinak, Delaney dives in on edge of box and misses ball, Souaré has to cover centrally so Rooney can drive wide, many Palace players out of position leaves space at back post that Fellaini and Mata occupy. Strong run by Rooney but terrible Palace defending.
- 105: Darmian gets very high on the left and Valencia comes forward, Smalling is left one-on-one with Bolasie who has come over to him, no cover from Rooney or Carrick which leaves him exposed, has to foul and take second yellow once turned.
Don’t get me wrong, Rooney did have a decent game overall. Perhaps I’m hard to please (these are just three instances from 120 minutes of football, after all), but this is the level of detail you come up against in football and why success depends on who fits a system best. And you’ll more often than not get punished in big games if you have a deep-lying midfielder who’s prone to lacking defensive discipline. He did help create United’s equaliser too but we can’t rely on an international team defending like that in the hope he’ll repeat that feat.
The other noticeable thing about Rooney, that was picked up on by the commentators several times on Saturday, is his tendency to let his frustration get the better of him. That means he dives into tackles and sprints back 40 yards to try and regain the ball now and again.
People may call this desire, passion or commitment (or all three), I call it a lack of discipline in most cases. Which is precisely not what you need in games where you’re not going to see much of the ball — if we get deep into the Euros, this will be the case. I can imagine Andrès Iniesta and Sergio Busquets playing a string of five-yard passes to tempt Rooney out and make him chase the ball, and then they’ll play around him.
Teams win tournaments because they have a strong spine which includes midfielders who know how to keep the team’s shape both with and without the ball. They don’t make rash decisions in possession because they realise its value and understand that you’re unlikely to see the ball for a while in international football if you give it away cheaply. They also don’t go chasing recklessly and drag the team out of shape when not in possession.
Some players change position as their career progresses, as they’re able to use an existing skill set to adapt their game. Rooney could well be one of them and see out his career playing further back. But he isn’t the first player to do so and won’t be the last. So please, you’re not a footballing genius because you always knew that Rooney could play in midfield, and he certainly won’t be the answer there at the very highest level.