When his name was announced at Wembley last Saturday evening, Wayne Rooney probably didn’t expect the reaction it received. As the England and Malta players went through their warm-up routines, the Manchester United striker was roundly booed by sections of the crowd.
Rooney is England’s leading goalscorer but his club form and recent appearances for his country, have raised questions about his international future. He certainly wasn’t helped by Sam Allardyce’s reaction to the question of where Rooney’s best position was.
“Wayne played wherever he wanted to,” Allardyce observed, hinting that Rooney ruled the roost. “It’s not for me to say where he’s going to play,” hardly helped matters either. It was clear that the then-England manager was out of his depth with a clear inference that the Manchester United captain was picking the team.
At his pre-match press conference, Rooney tried to defuse the criticism he was receiving, denying he held too much influence and power in the dressing room. He seemed genuinely concerned about his portrayal and it turned out, with good reason.
Rooney’s star is waning at the moment in the stands and back pages. He has scored just twice in eight international appearances this year, comfortably his worst return since 2010. When the ridicule of Allardyce subsided, questions were raised about the shadow Rooney casts over the England squad.
With the Premier League returning, the questions which dogged him on England duty followed him back to Old Trafford. A substitute for the past three games, his future as a professional footballer is being called into question.
There’s talk of a move to MLS next summer. China has been mooted but as with the Beckham’s, ‘Brand Rooney’ has more to gain beyond his playing days, by crossing the Atlantic than the Far East.
Few would have thought it would come to this but the combined failures of Van Gaal and Hodgson last season have left an unseemly mess at Rooney’s door. For his career to be in doubt seems utterly bizarre but after a meteoric rise to fame, a sudden fall from grace should come as no surprise.
Wayne Rooney is only 31.
Writing him off is premature. His form has tailed off drastically, impoverished by the madness which embraced Louis Van Gaal’s reign. This isn’t a new problem; he’s scored 8 Premier League goals in his last 35 appearances and hasn’t scored more than twenty goals in a club season since 2011-12.
Ryan Giggs recently claimed that Jose Mourinho was the root cause of the problem. “I feel a little bit sorry for him,” said Giggs. “Towards the end of last season and for England in the summer he was played in that deeper role,” he went on, before adding, “then he was told he’s playing as a No 9 or a No 10 [by Mourinho]. He’s probably a bit confused.”
Giggs was hardly likely to mention Van Gaal as the root cause of the problem. As the Dutchman’s assistant, it would have been an admission of guilt by association. If Mourinho confused Rooney, he was completely befuddled by the Portuguese’s predecessor.
This season has seen his confidence rocked further and as a result, his play has become ponderous. Passing whilst finding its target, is slow, an extra touch taken here and there whilst the runs he is making lack the incisive quality which brought him so much success.
His value to England lies mainly in being the only player seemingly capable of hitting a decent set-piece. That said, when introduced by Gareth Southgate in the tedious 0 – 0 draw with Slovenia, at least Rooney offered a genuine attacking threat, something none of the others managed all night.
Redemption is at hand in Monday night’s match. Liverpool, as any United fan will tell you, is the biggest match of the domestic season. An intense match, where rivalry is based on hatred not geography. Rooney is a Scouser, a former Everton player and with the mentality that Sir Alex Ferguson burned into his players for this match. And there is no better stage for him to find a resolution to his current woes. The match requires an experienced head to balance the exuberance of United’s attacking youth. With Ibrahimovic as the pivot of their attack, Lingaard, Martial and Rashford offer the pace but too much exuberance.
Playing in the deeper role, Rooney has the opportunity to arrive later in the box, to create a different threat or exploit lax marking. The Liverpool midfield has that in them, which Arsenal highlighted on the opening weekend.
But one game isn’t enough, Rooney has to adapt to his new role quickly. Mourinho is not noted for his patience and is already looking to next summer for new signings. The prime target is Antoine Griezmann but it’s unlikely the United board will sanction a move with both Rooney and Ibrahimovic on the payroll.
Rooney’s future may not come down to his form. At £300k per week, he is one of their top earners and something has to give. The question for the club to answer is whether they sell Rooney before a replacement is lined up. This might be the last summer when a good price can be claimed from prospective buyers, a point they will be acutely aware of.
His career isn’t over but a new course is being plotted. That alone is motivation for him to rediscover his form.