Wayne Rooney: The Lion on The Wane

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United reacts during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Swansea City at Old Trafford on April 30, 2017 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United reacts during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Swansea City at Old Trafford on April 30, 2017 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images) /
BURNLEY, ENGLAND – APRIL 23: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United during the Premier League match between Burnley and Manchester United at Turf Moor on April 23, 2017 in Burnley, England. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)
BURNLEY, ENGLAND – APRIL 23: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United during the Premier League match between Burnley and Manchester United at Turf Moor on April 23, 2017 in Burnley, England. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images) /

When Jose Mourinho came calling for Wayne Rooney in the summer of 2013, many predicted he would eventually get his way given that Rooney had apparently submitted a transfer request according to United’s departing manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Moreover, Rooney was about to be reunited with David Moyes, his former manager at Everton whom he fell out with before his move to United in 2004. So the stage was set for them linking up in the blue of Chelsea, only for Rooney to stay and sign a new contract with Manchester United, but the pair was eventually reunited three years later, with Mourinho coming in to take charge of United last summer.

Rooney, now United’s captain, was widely expected to have a reduced role under Mourinho given that the Portuguese tactician signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic to spearhead his attack but few would have predicted that he would be marginalized to such situation that he is currently finding himself in. With 32 apps (12 as a sub) and 7 goals in all competitions by the end of April, Rooney is on course to finish this season with his lowest goalscoring tally since joining United, possibly even his lowest ever since making his professional debut (he scored 8 and 9 goals in his maiden and second season with Everton, respectively). But stats only tell us half of the story; what’s more worrying is that Rooney has been struggling to get into the team more as the season wore on. After starting the first 4 Premier League games, he only started the next 7 out of a possible 17 games in which he was available and even after Ibrahimovic’s season-ending injury late in April, he was not considered the automatic replacement.

As his omission on last week’s Manchester derby suggests, the omen does not bode well for Rooney. So what went wrong with the former England golden boy? Has the Three Lions captain really turned into a spent force at the relatively young age of 31?

Physical Exhaustion and Loss of Enthusiasm

One possible explanation for Rooney’s demise would be that he is simply fatigued, physically and mentally. Earlier in the season, Rio Ferdinand – Rooney’s former teammate at United and England – suggested that years of scrutiny and pressure, combined with his own work ethic, had left Rooney with the body of a 40-year-old athlete. It is true that Rooney is an exemplarily hard worker on the pitch so it is hard to argue that his doggedness and determination to track back have not had an impact on his body. Therefore, the physical exhaustion argument might hold some water.

On the other hand, in this day and age, every professional footballer faces intense pressure, not least from their manager and fans but also from the media.  Being touted as the best talent England have ever produced since Paul Gascoigne – hence his “Wazza” nickname – certainly haven’t helped Rooney in staying out of the media spotlight but it is just the way it is with every global superstar nowadays. Take Cristiano Ronaldo as an example. He has been locked in a constant battle with Lionel Messi to be considered the best player in the world for ten years running and it would be an understatement to say that he faced the same amount of pressure as Rooney. Thus, it would be safe to say that Rooney’s decline should not be attributed to mental exhaustion. Rather, it is his enthusiasm for the game which should be put into question.

The young Rooney always seemed to play with fire in his belly and had an edge to go with his talents, like a kid in a park who would do all it takes to win. He was seen as a young man with a temper and played with such aggression that he often found himself in the referees’ bad books. In recent years, Rooney has cleaned up his act and as a result, he picked up much fewer bookings but unfortunately, along with this newfound calmness he seemed to have lost some of the spark which marked him out as a special player early in his career. It might be argued that the apparent loss of enthusiasm is just a sign of maturity; that the grown-up Rooney is better at controlling the demon within him. However, one might wonder whether anything could be done to rekindle the fire and bring him closer to his younger self.

What’s Next?

Rumors about a potential move to China have been circling around and according to The Sun, Paul Stretford – Rooney’s agent – even went as far as holding talks with several Chinese League clubs over a possible transfer back in February. Even with a number of big-name players already plying their trade in the league (Oscar and Carlos Tevez just to mention a few), a move to China would be seen not only as a couple of steps down for Rooney but also as a statement that the player himself believes that he is no longer capable of playing at the highest level and one last huge paycheck at the twilight of his career is what he is looking for.

While there is no denying that Rooney is no longer the exciting teenager who seemed set to have the world at his feet when he first came onto the scene, it would be premature to suggest that he is finished on the back of one poor season. It is true that he is not the fittest naturally, not to mention that he has lost a yard of pace along with his declining athleticism. However, there are a lot of ways for a player to cope with their aging body, a positional shift being one. For example, Ryan Giggs was a flying winger in his heydays, yet he reinvented himself to be a central midfielder in his later years to respectable effect. Although he did not play week-in week-out, he still managed to play 32 times and scored 5 goals in his penultimate season, aged 39, under Sir Alex Ferguson, not a manager known for his sentiments. Although a similar move into midfield seems straightforward for Rooney given his familiarity with the role, it might not prove to be the ideal solution. During the times he was deployed as a central midfielder, both by the current United manager and his predecessor Louis Van Gaal, he has often looked leggy, unable to cope with the intensity of opposing midfielders and only contributed in slowing the team down rather than providing the bridge between defense and attack. That is why a move further up the pitch might be the best option for Rooney.

It goes without saying that Rooney has often been deployed as a number 9 but due to his tendency of tracking back and dropping deep, he rarely played as an out-and-out striker, except for the 2009 – 2010 season. Back then, United had just lost their main source of goals because of Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Real Madrid so it was up to Rooney to assume goalscoring duties. He scored 34 goals in all competitions that season, his best ever goalscoring tally. It could have been more though, if it weren’t for the ankle injury he sustained (and aggravated a week later) against Bayern Munich in March. So there’s no doubting his goalscoring ability but what about his increasingly limited mobility? Rooney could probably learn a thing or two from the man he played with a couple of seasons ago, Radamel Falcao.

The Colombian frontman injured his anterior cruciate ligament three years ago and joined United on loan after recovering, but he never looked like the same player and ultimately only managed 4 goals in a United shirt. The season after, he joined Chelsea and fared even worse, only managing 1 goal all season. After two torrid seasons in England he was written off as a damaged good, ponderous and no longer deadly in front of goal. This season though, he has made everybody who wrote him off look foolish by becoming a key component in the Monaco team which has taken the Ligue 1 by storm, top of the league with 4 games remaining. Falcao has chipped in his part with 19 goals in the league, in addition to his 7 goals in the Champions League and the key to his resurgence has been his reinvention as a fox in the box, coupled with Monaco’s 4-4-2 system. His striking partner, Valere Germain, has allowed him to focus on his attacking duties in and around the penalty box by doing all the dirty work off the ball, much like Shinji Okazaki in his partnership with Jamie Vardy during Leicester’s fairytale Premier League triumph last year.

Although there is no guarantee that Rooney will be able to replicate the renaissance of El Tigre, chances are he should because unlike Falcao, he had not suffered a potentially career-ending injury. If Rooney stays at United, Lingard is surely the perfect partner for him to start his reinvention but the big question is: will he? After 13 years at United, breaking the all-time goalscoring record previously held by Sir Bobby Charlton in the process, he might feel that he has achieved everything he could and move on to find a new lease of life but one thing is certain: there’s life in the fading lion yet.