Cast your mind back to roughly ten years ago. Ronaldinho was the best player on the planet, having helped Barcelona win the Champions League. At this time there were three young players who looked set to take his place someday. Everyone was convinced that Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney would be future Ballon d’Or winners. Those predictions came true for the first two players, but Rooney’s decline over the last few seasons has been alarming.
It’s a sad thing when the England captain finds himself booed. It’s even more disturbing when it’s not just by fans of Manchester United’s opponents. During the recent World Cup Qualifiers, his name was jeered by the home crowd at Wembley.
Rooney has had to deal with plenty of negative publicity lately over the freefall his career now finds itself in. The explosive turn of pace that marked his early career, which made him stand out, has long since vanished. Many believe that he has caused this to happen himself. An in-depth look, however, shows that the blame can be attributed more equally.
Sir Alex Ferguson
When Rooney first signed for United, the eagerness to play the game shone through him. He was a player would have played in goal if he was asked, just so that he could get a game. Sir Alex Ferguson knew this, and took full advantage. Although Rooney was originally played as a striker, his preferred position, this changed over time.
During the 2007-08 season, Ferguson generally deployed a front three of Rooney, Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. As a result Rooney was often shifted out to the left hand side. Whenever the line-ups were announced on television, the formation would show Rooney and Tevez as the strikers. Ronaldo would be on the right of midfield, but anyone who watched the games would be able to tell you he never stayed there. The Portuguese winger was basically given a free role, and finished the campaign with 42 goals. He usually finished matches up front, forcing Rooney out to a wide role.
The following season Rooney started up front, as Ronaldo missed the first month through injury. There was also the added equation of Dimitar Berbatov, newly-purchased from Tottenham. When he returned to the team, a similar pattern started emerging. When United took a three-goal lead at the Emirates in the Champions League semi-final, the third goal tells its own story. A superb counter attack resulted in Rooney passing from the left to Ronaldo who finished it off.
Rooney became the focal point of the attack in 2009-10, and played mainly as a striker for the next three years. He scored 84 goals over that period. He could probably be forgiven for having his nose put out of joint by the arrival of Robin van Persie. Having scored 34 times in 2011-12, he was asked to play slightly behind the Dutchman, or sometimes back on the left. At the end of Ferguson’s final season, the manager revealed he had asked for a transfer.
Rooney has always said that he sees himself as a striker. Considering he was England’s big hope for the future, it can’t have been healthy for his confidence or his development to be switched around so much. Rooney has always been quite an unselfish player, so he wouldn’t have complained. He saw it as doing a job for the team, but it hasn’t helped him as a player.
Due to van Persie being injured for a large chunk of the 2013-14 season, David Moyes tended to play Rooney up front. Louis van Gaal also tended to do the same at first, but soon started experimenting with him in central midfield.
It’s not hard to see why he gave that a try. For one thing, Rooney had lost a yard or two of pace by this time. Another reason would be that he still possesses great long range passing ability. Despite this, he isn’t Paul Scholes but that’s what van Gaal was clearly trying to turn him into. This has also transpired to the England team; whenever a squad is announced now, he is always listed as a midfielder.
Although Ferguson’s successors won’t have helped, it’s hard to point the finger totally at them. It seems quite clear that the majority of the damage had already been done.
The Man Himself
When Rooney burst onto the scene with that goal against Arsenal in 2002, it was clear his was a special talent. Although aged just 16, he was already built like a man. Throughout his career he has had battles to keep the weight off. He admitted as much in his autobiography and that if he misses training for a few weeks, he is liable to gain a few pounds. It gives you the impression that once he stops playing, and training every day, this is a battle he will lose.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that his attitude off the field may well have led to Rooney’s decline. Messi and Ronaldo are now talked about as being the greatest that ever played the game. Ten years ago they were all around a similar level. But you don’t see stories about them falling out of bars, urinating in the street and smoking. They have the highest respect for their bodies. Ronaldo looks more like an athlete than a footballer.
It is an accepted fact that players tend to lose a yard of pace when they hit their thirties. The alarming thing is that Rooney seemed to lose his midway through his twenties. The battles with his weight, and not living the lifestyle expected of a professional footballer, probably contributed to this.
Every football fan has an opinion on Wayne Rooney’s decline, with some of the opinion that he wasn’t that great a player anyway. You only have to look at the player he was in his early years to see that’s not the case.
Some point to his poor record at international tournaments. It easy to forget he carried an injury into the 2006 World Cup, as well as picking up an injury prior to the 2010 tournament from which he struggled to recover. Even when playing for United, he didn’t look like the same player afterwards.
It has been said that Rooney is not, and never has been, world class. It’s hard to argue with at least the first part of that assessment at the present moment in time. But he had the talent to be, and it cannot be blamed totally on a lack of dedication by the player.
Rooney has been dropped by both club and country in recent weeks. He will still be an important squad member for the time being, but how long that continues to be the case remains to seen.