Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rooney justifies midfield ambitions in balanced display against Arsenal

Employing Rooney in Scholes' role instead of continuing to shoehorn him as an out-and-out striker he is not is the only scenario I can envision really unshackling Rooney's remaining and decreasing potential.

Well it's about bloody time.

Sir Alex Ferguson emerged from his carefully-carved thinking box and finally employed Wayne Rooney in the center of midfield for Manchester United.

Granted, it was only a bit-part performance: Against Arsenal on Saturday, Rooney was still, at most times, the second-most man forward.

But, particularly in the first half, he played like he was part of the midfield instead of someone without any defensive duties.

His head was on a swivel. He was involved, almost happy, pointing and directing traffic on defense and grabbing the ball deep to alternatively create triangles and slowly press upfield or ping it himself over the top through to Hernandez, occupying Rooney's old position. It was almost beautiful.

He even intimated that Ferguson did it on purpose, which is both refreshing and surprising.

"The work effort from the two lads on the wing, and we had me and Gibbo just in front of O'Shea, and I think it worked out well," the Englishman said.

"We worked hard. We stopped them getting through-balls to the forwards and we knew we could catch them on the break which we have done over the last few years against Arsenal.

"It was a gritty performance from us."

Hernandez was the target man as Rafael and Fabio also flew forward giving Rooney the foundation to really ply his inherent traits.

Why did we have to wait 65 million years for this?

And his traits are well-documented, just as this paradigm shift from his manager—if it's even that—is long overdue.

I wrote in 2008, advocating Rooney behind Berbatov and Tevez when the English striker was characteristically off-form and their rotation up top became counter-productive:

While they are healthy, the situation could easily be manipulated to the side's advantage, but it requires a break from dogma for the Scottish manager.

Ferguson's parochial approach to playing Rooney at the expense of Tevez must be shifted to slotting Rooney behind both [the Argentine] and Berbatov in an attacking midfield role.

Rooney is a workhorse. His penchant for tracking back is actually maligned when he is playing striker; slot him into a supporting role, and it would be glorified.

In addition to his work-rate, Rooney is a brilliant creative passer and a team leader. He is quicker and stronger than Carrick, and might even be better in the air.  

The energy he harbors playing forward, which, as said, is often expressed rashly and impudently, could easily be displaced throughout the midfield. 

There he can win balls and orchestrate forward movements: passing, firing long-range shots, and making late runs trademarked by the ginger-haired master.

Not a lot has changed. United still have two other strikers in more consistent form. Carrick is still shite. Why not get Rooney on the field in a position he can really express himself?

He could play the defensive in role in midfield better than the lanky Englishman while passing better, being faster, stronger and with better cardio and vision.

Furthermore, Wayne would absolutely revel in being able to constantly pick up the ball off the backline,  eliminating the inevitably of them aimlessly booting it downfield to him.

He'd also love tracking other playmakers because players with huge egos love tracking other players with huge egos. Trust me.

He could start from deep, work triangles through the park, ping Hollywood balls from corner to corner, flying tackle people, throw elbows willy-nilly, spit to his heart's content, be closer to the referee to yell "FACK OFF", and get sent off more.

Where's the downside?

Rooney has always been a better footballer than a striker.

Different formations an' that

It doesn't really matter what tactics the gaffer wants to use, our Scouser would fit finely.

Even a center pairing of Rooney and Scholes is more combative than the Ginger Prince and "The Friendly Ghost" proved against Chelsea two weeks ago. There United's center midfield were overrun in the second half, Fletcher marooned out wide.

Then Ferguson again started Carrick and Scholes in the middle against Liverpool in front of a depleted backline. This time Rooney was the one marooned incorrectly in left field and thereby abysmal. United conceded more space and looked more amateurish than they had at any other time this season.

To be sure, in a 4-4-2, Fletcher should be the first midfielder on the teamsheet. Pairing him with Rooney is an equally creative—but substantially more bottled—alternative to Scholes and especially Giggs.

In a four-man midfield, if the ginger one isn't up to task—injured or otherwise, employing Valencia, Nani, Fletcher, and Rooney is much more appealing on paper than any other possible attacking array.

Ferguson's infamous 4-5-1 with Hernandez or Berbatov up top with Rooney, Scholes, and Fletcher supporting makes an otherwise ineffective and undesirable formation seem absolutely dreamy.

Sir Alex experiments elsewhere too

Basically, when it comes to five-man midfields, if it doesn't involve Carrick or Gibson, and has Wayne somewhere in the middle, then it's green pastures.

Especially since Ferguson also revealed against Arsenal his hitherto unknown or nonexistent willingness to try a da Silva twin on the wing.

The Brazilians are perfect like-for-like replacements to fulfill a Ji-Sung Park role, except they are much faster and far superior going forward.

They have fantastic engines and each get well stuck-in—with a grain of naivete, of course, and not that it's always bad.

They provide rambunctious, more defensive-minded wingplay if ever an overabundance of creativity in the middle had to be compensated for.

The da Silva twins do so with more attacking panache and ability along the wing than Park, Fletcher, Rooney, or any other player Ferguson would shoehorn in for a more defensive approach.

Russian doll phenomenon

Perhaps most importantly, slotting Wayne Rooney into center middle means Javier Hernandez gets to play more.

Chicharito gives a completely different look than any other United striker. It's become obvious even to pundits. His forward runs are absolutely electric, opening space throughout the whole park and enabling a

United counterattack that is otherwise stale without him.

Hernandez is more natural to the position and more effective in it than Rooney. Already. After half a season.

Ponch has vast, undeveloped inherent talent, as opposed to Rooney who had talent but plateaued as he became complacent believing was a premier world striker.

He's the better forward, better alone up top, and a better partner for Berbatov.

Frankly, the idea of Rooney creating play for the two up top is absolutely spellbinding in theory.

Whether it plays out in real time is unlikely to be ascertained until next season—a consistent, major postitional shift for Ferguson's most popular player wouldn't take place proper during the culmination of a three-front trophy assault. Rooney may not even be here then.

But if he is, and if it does, then United and its fans might have finally been rewarded with the replacement for Paul Scholes we've been desperately seeking already for several years.

It's a move that benefits the team and the player, giving United a younger, energetic version of—and replacement for—their best player of the last 15 years, allowing Rooney the space and role to do everything a relatively complete footballer should be able to do throughout the course of a match.

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