Between the opening fixture of the English Premier League season on August 16th, 2010 and the end of the calendar year, Wayne Rooney scored just one league goal. Combined with his poor finish to Manchester United's 2009-10 league campaign and England's disastrous World Cup, Rooney was very much a player who was out of form. A slew of pundits assured the general public that when Rooney finally scored he would begin to score in buckets, but a small segment of people started to believe that he was not the player who scored over 40 goals for club and country in the previous season.
Those people were mostly wrong, but only mostly. The doubters were not completely wrong because Wayne Rooney is not a pure goal scorer above all else, and he has always been mis-categorized as an out and out striker. Therefore, anyone who said that Rooney was not really the player who scored 40 goals in a year was not inherently incorrect.
However, the falsehood of a statement does not come from the exact words, but from the baggage that is implied. The implication of a sentence like "Wayne Rooney is not really the player who scored 40 goals in a season" is that he is not of the caliber of player who can do that on a year in, year out basis. That is where the falsehood lies, as Rooney is almost certainly one of the best players in the world. In the beginning of the season, he was going through a simple lapse in form, likely caused by a variety of factors. It's happened to every great footballer, and it will likely happen to Rooney again before his career is over.
But, back to why that statement isn't totally absurd. Rooney isn't a year in, year out 40 goal scorer, but not because of a lack of quality. In fact, it's an abundance of quality that makes Rooney not that kind of player. Confused? I'll clear it up quickly.
The reason that Rooney is not that player is because Rooney is too good to be that player, while being not quite good enough to be Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Wayne Rooney is not one player - the goal scoring striker - but many players. And it's his versatility that makes him a world class talent, above all else.
More than any other world class player, Rooney's role has changed multiple times over the course of the season for all of the last four seasons. In any given match, Rooney can play as a No. 9 up top by himself, a second striker playing off of a target man, a false nine, a wide forward on the left side of a 4-3-3 formation, or in his current role, as a playmaker that is closer to an attacking midfielder than a forward.
In that role, he was absolutely brilliant against Chelsea on the weekend, just like he was against Schalke in the Champions League semifinals. Of course, while United started experimenting with Rooney in this role a couple of months ago, his real coming out party was against the same Chelsea team that he played on Sunday, as he dismantled them in the Champions League quarterfinals.
I may have used the word 'experimenting' in a very liberal manner above, so let me clarify. Almost everyone knew that Rooney could play as a trequarista behind a central striker and in front of a couple of disciplined central midfielders. He's done it in a couple of occasions, and many have believed for quite some time that it was Rooney's natural position. He has all the necessary skills to play there, and he never liked staying up top anyway. Alex Ferguson had a hypothesis that he had to test, but he was at least 95% sure what the results would be before he began testing it.
Despite the fact that Manchester United have looked flawed at times this season, leading people like our own Ethan Dean-Richards to refer to the Red Devils as the 'beatable champions,' they have looked very good in recent weeks as Rooney has become better and better at his new role. United had a bit of a hiccup against Arsenal - for which Rooney was hardly at fault - and as a result United could win the title on less than 80 points. However, they looked much, much more beatable two months ago than they do now, even with that Arsenal result, and Rooney's new role is the biggest reason behind that.
Rooney's skill set makes him perfect for his current trequarista role, and honestly, it's pretty surprising that someone as brilliant as Alex Ferguson didn't think of it sooner. He's like the perfect marriage of Wesley Sneijder and Kevin-Prince Boateng. Rooney has the size, strength, pace, and work rate of Boateng with the skill, vision, and tactical aptitude of Sneijder. His passing ability is supremely underrated, and his work rate is second to none. He's the perfect trequarista for the English Premier League, a league which is often called too physical for some of world football's smaller superstars.
On Sunday, Carlo Ancelotti deployed his team in a 4-3-3 formation with John Obi Mikel as a defensive midfielder. This team selection was obviously conceived with Rooney in mind. In the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal tie, Chelsea played a 4-4-2 against United, and Rooney had a lot of space to operate. The introduction of Mikel into the midfield was supposed to help stifle Rooney's influence, but it did nothing of the sort.
Rooney would be a handful even if he were on a team that lacked serious talent, but the team around him on Sunday left Chelsea with serious problems. Mikel was unable to deny service to Rooney, and he is not the kind of player who can man mark Rooney. Though Mikel is often miscast as nothing more than a large defensive midfielder when he is actually a very skilled player, he is certainly not a quick player with the necessary change of direction skills to stick on Rooney. So, naturally, he needed some help.
Problem is, if anyone came to help Mikel, Chelsea were in even more hot water than they were if they let Rooney have acres of space. If one of the central defenders stepped up to close down Rooney, the crafty Javier Hernandez would get himself into a position to score a goal in a split second. If Michael Essien or Frank Lampard came back to mark Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick would be able to keep possession of the ball all day long. The combination of Rooney's skill set and the team around him left Chelsea with a problem that was extremely difficult to solve.
Though Rooney did not score a goal or provide an assist on Sunday, his influence was easy to spot. He recorded six shots during the game, and he completed 88 percent of his passes, a number comparable to the likes of Xavi Hernandez and superior to the likes of Luka Modric and Cesc Fabregas. It was a stunning performance, and it looked like one that was easily repeatable.
Manchester United may not defeat Barcelona at Wembley Stadium in the Champions League final, but the fact that they are going to be there at all is a testament to Ferguson's genius and Rooney's form in his new position. United are by no means the most talented or second most talented team in the world, but their player personnel decisions and Rooney's form make them excellent pretenders.