In the 77th minute of Manchester United’s match against Swansea City last week, Wayne Rooney produced a moment of magic.
After a marauding run from Anthony Martial down the left flank, Rooney backheeled his teammate’s cross past Lukasz Fabianksi and into the top corner of the net.
The Englishman’s audacious attempt wrapped up an elusive three points for United, ending a run of eight games in all competitions without a victory. Additionally, Rooney’s goal was his 188th in the Premier League, surpassing Andy Cole and making him the league’s second-highest scorer of all time.
Such a feat should be a point of pride for United’s captain, but, in reality, it’s a stark and saddening reminder of his fall from grace; Rooney used to be quite a player.
The striker that United now have in their ranks is not the same one they had in 2004 when he joined the club, or even the same one that they had a mere couple of years ago.
Perhaps Rooney’s football intelligence and acumen are still there, but with every action he makes on the field, the gap between his body and brain appears even wider.
His touch consistently fails, his past explosiveness and speed look nonexistent as he lumbers around the pitch, and his shooting comes nowhere near resembling that of the 20-goal a season striker he once was. He doesn’t look like the type of player capable of pulling off a backheeled goal, making his match-winner against Swansea all the more surprising.
This image does not describe anything resembling a world-class footballer, or even a very productive one (at least at the high level of the Premier League), but Rooney is still curiously viewed by some as the top striker he hasn’t been in years.
For the second straight year, he has been named the England Player of the Year, but it’s hard to argue that there is truly no better English talent at the moment.
A more significant over-exaggeration of Rooney’s current talent comes from United manager Louis van Gaal, who has played the underperforming striker in 15 of his side’s 20 league games. In these appearances Rooney has amassed a mere three goals and one assist, while completing a measly 0.6 dribbles per game. Though he does produce a respectable 1.3 key passes per game, he is also dispossessed about twice per match, and his pass completion percentage of 81.8% is fairly pedestrian.
Rooney’s frequent appearances show that he has a major believer in van Gaal, but ultimately, his poor form and rapidly deteoriating ability mean that he should no longer be an important, starting player for United.
While some may prefer to chalk up his struggles to an ‘off-year’, the reality is that Rooney’s current form and statistics are indicative of his actual ability. After being involved in 27 goals in the 2013/14 season (17 goals, 10 assists), and 17 last season (12 goals, five assists), he has played a role in just four goals this time around with less than half of this season left to play.
The clear downward trend in Rooney’s play over the course of the last three seasons shows that it it is unlikely for him to suddenly ‘snap out of it’ and make a brilliant comeback.
For now, Rooney is still considered to be a vital part of United’s setup by van Gaal, and this belief is detrimental to the team.
The fielding of Rooney as a striker shifts Anthony Martial out wide, a position he is fairly comfortable playing, but not the one that is most helpful to the team. It is painfully obvious that Martial is the more dynamic and better of the two, but Rooney continues to benefit from his captaincy at the club, leading to the perpetuation of United’s lumbering, ineffective attacking play.
Although many found positives in his performance against Chelsea, and his winner against Swansea was superb, Rooney simply cannot be counted on any longer to be a consistent producer for the club.
He has had a fantastic, trophy-laden United career, but the club needs to be less sentimental, and realise that football is a business; every additional year that they count on him as a key player out of loyalty is another year sacrificing the potential of the team. As shown by Chelsea releasing Frank Lampard at the end of his brilliant career in London, it is possible – though not easy – to show gratitude and respect for a player without burdening the team as well.
At 30 years of age, Rooney is five years younger than Lampard was when he was released by Chelsea, but similarly looks like a player far from his best (he’s been playing since was 16, after all). Despite that, however, United have still largely centred their team around him.
Ultimately, whether it be respectfully ushering him (and his wages) out of the club, or reducing him to a bit-part role, it’s time for United to respond to Rooney’s painful, blatant decline.