Back when anyone who booted up a FIFA game slowly bobbed their heads to Kings of Leon’s Red Morning Light, a young Scouser became the youngest goalscorer (at that point) in Premier League history when he scored the last-minute scorcher of a winner, after a calm touch and determined break, to end Arsenal’s 30-game unbeaten run. Sufficient numbers of heads were turned and having only turned eighteen, Wayne Rooney made the switch to Manchester United for £25.6 million, breaking the transfer fee record for a teenager. 285 more career goals, 5 Premier League titles, a Champions League medal and the best Premier League goal of all-time later, the question on everyone’s minds is “What’s up with Wazza?”
The problem with Rooney is that statistics don’t tell the whole story. While there was considerable doubt that the goals had dried up because he was being deployed in a deeper No.10 role, a reasonable stint as a No.9 this season has only produced 1 league goal against lowly Sunderland besides a handful of cup-game goals against Club Brugge and Ispwich Town. Before the arrival of the once-feared Robin van Persie, Rooney had bagged 27 goals as United’s No.9 in the league and would’ve won the league but for Sergio Aguero’s extremely last-minute heroics against Queen’s Park Rangers. But with another proven goalscorer in their ranks, Sir Alex needed him to create the goals while Robin flew in to finish them and it worked like a charm to bring United their 20th top-flight title, the next season. Things have slowly disintegrated since then, with van Persie already accepting defeat in the race against age to ply his trade in Turkey.
Captain for club and country when he plays, Rooney is no longer the young and explosive striker that held his own alongside world’s-best-player Cristiano Ronaldo in the mid-2000s. He is now one of the veterans in sides going through different kinds of transition – the post-Ferguson era at Old Trafford and the English national team trying to forget about the disappointment of a “golden generation”. Grumblings about Rooney’s form have surfaced before but the man himself, by promptly getting back to scoring goals and picking his team up, has never let them sink into the social psyche while many backup strikers from the bullish Tevez to the silky Berbatov to the hawkish Chicarito have apparated and vanished. That’s because Wayne Rooney was all this in one.
But this time, it feels different. His touches seem off. His extended spell as an attacking midfielder seems to have left him confused whether to power through and get a shot off or hold the ball and find a teammate especially when he’s the furthest player in attack. It would not be too far off to claim he has not been the kind of assured senior presence younger teammates can look up to. It is hard to ascertain whether Rooney is suffering from the same ailment that struck the Dutch superman, purely because their similarities in playing style was mostly limited to “has a penchant for scoring outrageous volleys”.
RvP, at the peak of his powers, was an elite poacher whose game revolved around the perfect mix of positioning, touch and shot. Wayne, on the other hand, is the kind of power player who likes running defenses ragged before landing the knock-out. So, while van Persie’s body may not be able to move as fast as his mind, meaning his positioning is not as good as it used to be, it is easy to understand. For Rooney, that should never be a problem because he is the kind of striker whose movements the midfielders anticipate more than the other way around. It is also easy to forget that Rooney is only just about thirty years old, just because he’s been around for what seems like forever. One might venture to even worry whether this is a case of Torresitis, when the work-rate signals that the body still has a few miles left but the touch belies a lack of confidence that seems to be worsened by bad fortune every time he gets the ball.
The arrival of Anthony Martial (coincidentally breaking the transfer record for a teenager) at Old Trafford and the clutch of fresh English strikers, led by Leicester’s rags-to-riches hero Jamie Vardy, lighting the Premier League up has further piled pressure on Rooney. It is unlikely that Louis van Gaal or Roy Hodgson will drop their general unless he’s suspended or injured because the kind of soft power (re: team spirit and club ethos) you gain from playing for a team for more than a decade is difficult to buy. However, the end of this season might put into motion a transfer merry-go-around which effectively phases him out to fringe veteran from talisman starter unless, as he’s done so many times before, the goal-rain from Rooney starts pouring again.