Featured in WORLD FOOTBALL WEEKLY – Issue Twelve
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AS Hugo Rodallega’s studs tore through Wayne Rooney’s thigh last Saturday Sir Alex Ferguson’s current headache began to relieve itself, albeit only for the amount of time it takes the England striker’s wounds to heal.
Having added Robin van Persie to his extensive arsenal of striking options the Manchester United manager has now forced Rooney’s position as the team’s first-choice striker into question. There is no doubting that having fought so hard and spending so much on a 29-year-old centre forward coming off the most prolific season of his career, Ferguson is not about to ask the Dutchman to play a more withdrawn role nor is he going to shift Van Persie to the flanks where United are swelling with competition.
Against Everton in the opening game of the season Rooney looked isolated and frustrated at times, which is to be expected after his lethargic time in the England camp during the Euros which seems to have drained the form out of him as it did after the World Cup in 2010.
Already Shinji Nagawa has staked his claim for the second striker or ‘in the hole’ player that many expected Rooney to occupy just behind Van Persie. The Japanese attacking midfielder has immediately provided Manchester United with a probing edge that they badly lacked last season – in fact it could be argued that what Ferguson needed was a controlling midfielder capable of dominating from box-to-box to complement his wide options and front men rather than Van Persie.
So now Rooney faces up to six weeks out while his thing muscle recovers from the gash which not only cut straight down to the bone, but required the player to undergo a general anaesthetic as surgeons repaired the damage.
While Rooney rehabs it is likely that Van Persie shall continue to make the most of the service United can provide through Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Nani in the wider areas while Tom Cleverly, Michael Carrick and Nagawa look poised to become the central column of midfield which can use dominant possession to expose their opponents.
Should the team be humming in this 4-1-3-1-1 formation – Ferguson has always favoured one striker in Europe for the past decade – then Rooney may have to adapt to find a role in the team. This has not always been an issue for the Liverpudlian, who has had to play second fiddle to Cristiano Ronaldo in the past while one of the main issues surrounding his decision to break off contract talks two years ago was that the club were not signing enough big-name players. Now the reality is the high-profile stars are arriving, thriving providing competition for his place.
So where will this leave the most gifted English man of his generation? History tells us two things regarding Rooney’s form. That he takes almost a month to return to form after an injury and that barring last season’s astonishing return of nine goals in his first seven for the then Premier League champions, he is a notoriously slow starter to the season.
In 2010/11 Rooney returned just six goals from his first 17 games in red, in 09/10 he contributed eight from his 16, preceded by only five out of 18 in 08/09 and when United won the treble he began with seven from 17.
So now he may have to accept that a deep-lying position, possibly even as far back as central midfield should the Kagawa-RvP tandem flourish up at the top end of the pitch.
Rooney possesses the kind of engine that United have not been able to replace since Roy Keane’s departure, despite his aggression his tackling is better than most attacking players and his touch, vision and ability to play cutting passes are often overshadowed by the spectacular goal-scoring side of his play.
The idea of Rooney driving the red half of Manchester from the centre of the pitch may be a mouth-watering prospect for United fans given the amount of attacking talent he would be surrounded by but how England manager Roy Hodgson would view it is quite another argument.
Nonetheless, Ferguson managed to juggle Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and Teddy Sheringham to great effect in 1999 while his last Champions League winning team was spearheaded by his deployment of Rooney, Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez as an attacking trio.
Having hunted Van Persie since the early days of summer you can be assured Ferguson had a plan that included both the former Arsenal star and Rooney, but for now only time will tell us what that will be.
Writer – Irish Daily Mail