The Wayne Rooney Dilemma: England’s Dismay and Manchester United’s Transfer Market

Wayne Rooney is undoubtedly the greatest and best footballing star England has right now. The likes of Beckham, Terry, Gerard, Ferdinand, and Lampard are all past their best now. Ashley Cole is a world class player, but his acclaim is stifled by him being a left-back; Joe Hart has potential to be one of the greatest Goal Keepers of his generation, but he is still far beyond the likes of Iker Casillas. Rooney has the typical English talent of pace, strength, and workrate coupled with the unusual talents of deft touches, passes, and imagination. At Manchester United, even when playing alongside Ronaldo, many had observed that United looked much less dangerous without Rooney than without Ronaldo (even when the latter won the Ballon d’Or). The hype for Rooney for England started with his devastating performance in Euro 2004. However, in the next three major tournaments he has played for England, he has been hugely underwhelming. Even considering the fact that his injury status probably should have prevented him from participating in the 2006 World Cup, his performance in the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 were huge disappointments. What makes it even worse is that prior to both tournaments, Rooney had spectacular seasons with United. In 09/10 Rooney scored 26 goals in 32 games in the league, second most after Didier Drogba (29 in 32). Similarly in 11/12 Rooney scored 27 in 34 games, again narrowly bested by Robin Van Persie (30 in 38 games). His spectacular form in the domestic league has never transferred to the international stages, raising not only concern, but even infuriated response (Capello).

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Former England Manager Fabio Capello harshly criticized Wayne Rooney after Euro 2012

Maybe Rooney’s success at Manchester United is the direct cause of his poor performance in international tournaments. Why is Rooney so important to England? Because he is hugely talented yes, but how? Rooney’s greatest talent is probably the fact that he is(was) a player who has the spacial awareness, technical gift, and self sacrificing mentality to play ‘in the hole’. He is the best player England has had to thrive as a ‘number 10’ since Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne. Excellent number 10’s are valued in any footballing culture, ask any footballing fan to name the top 5 best footballers of all time. With the exception of Franz Beckenbauer, 99% of the time, 4 or more of those players will be players who played in the number 10 position, sometimes the talent for number 9 also. However, for a country whose first choice formation at all age levels is still a rigid 4-4-2, the likes of Wayne Rooney is especially important. In other countries, even if there isn’t a great player to play in the hole, there are often players who can dictate the tempo of the game and provide incisive chances in the form of passers in center midfield (think Andrea Pirlo in Euro 2012, and to a lesser extent in the 2006 World Cup). The closest player England has had in that mold for years is Michael Carrick, who has never had much luck wearing the national team jersey. Also consider the fact that as more teams are turning to a four band formation (i.e. 4-2-3-1), the traditional three band 4-4-2 leaves a lot of space to be exploited between the lines. As it turns out, Rooney has the rare talent to cover both of those lines. He has the touch and imagination to play ‘in the hole’ between the opposition defense and midfield line. Arguably more importantly however, he has traditionally been the bullish player to run back deep into midfield to win the ball again; effectively filling up the hole between his defense and midfield line. These facts are arguably the greatest gifts Rooney has as a footballer, and why he is so crucial to England and to Manchester United. The gift comes with one caveat. The simple fact that if he is running around so much, so often so far from the opposition goal, he probably won’t score as much. It is not that Rooney is a poor goal scorer. He is a very good goal scorer, as he has shown in the 09/10 and 11/12 season; however, the catch is that if he wants to score more goals, he has to play further up the field, much more like a traditional center forward, and his unique contributions to the team become lost. This tendency was already noted by Jonathan Wilson back in 2011 in his article <Should Man Utd worry about how many goals Wayne Rooney scores?> Now going back to England, notice that in both tournaments 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euro, Rooney had just spent the season before as a prolific goal scorer and in the national team were coupled with a more traditional goal scorer, or expected to act unlike a goal scorer. In 2010, he was partnered with Emile Heskey and Jermaine Defoe. In both cases, Rooney was much too close to his partner, trying to occupy the same space as the traditional goal scorer. In 2012, he was partnered with the more versatile Danny Welbeck, but it was his negligence of his defensive duties on Andrea Pirlo in the quarter finals that was crucial for the Italian dominance in the game. Pirlo himself even noted after the match that Wayne Rooney was often much too high up the field and gave himself too much space to operate. This was frustrating as ZonalMarking noted, Roy Hodgson had clearly wanted Rooney to pick up Pirlo, and Joe Hart could be heard shouting the same instructions during the game.

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As spectacular as his goal was, maybe England and United want to see less of this

Manchester United face a similar dilemma. United are much more well equipped, their first choice midfielder is Michael Carrick, often underrated for his quiet and seemingly slow playing style. But Carrick is an excellent passer of the ball and very good in his defensive positioning. The problem with Carrick would be his lack of verticality and ball winning abilities. Normally, this should be compensated by a more energetic partner. However the frequent injuries of Darren Fletcher, Owen Hargreaves, and even Anderson has meant that for the last couple of seasons Carrick’s partners were either Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs. Both are excellent on the ball and extremely good passers, but neither are very good ball winners (Scholes better known for his atrocious tackling abilities), and simply due to their age (Ryan Giggs turned professional when Balotelli was four months old) they are not the energetic partners ideal for Carrick. Naturally, Rooney’s tendencies to drop deep into the midfield, win balls and instigate imaginative balls were crucial for United. Note that despite the thrashing by Barcelona in the finals, in the last three seasons, United were the most dominant both in Europe and domestically in the 10/11 season when the partnership between Rooney and Hernandez flourished, not when Rooney was bagging more than thirty goals a season. It is true that Hernandez’s poor form in the 11/12 season meant that someone had to replace the goal scoring position, and Rooney was by far the most established goal scorer in the side. It created problems for United. Their attack was much more predictable, without anyone pulling the strings and drawing the defense out of position. The midfield was often overrun by more energetic and physical opponents. Unlike England however, United are a club team, meaning they can buy players as they see fit to improve their squad. Here, two options were immediately available. Either replace Rooney the withdrawn forward, or replace Rooney the center forward. Personally I had hoped for the latter of the two, but Sir Alex Ferguson it seems like has had the former as his goal for a number of seasons. It is evident in his hot pursuit of Wesley Sneijder. Sneijder’s was excellent in 09/10 as a traditional trequartista. Despite his poor form after Mourinho’s departure, Sir Alex Ferguson clearly believed he still retained the necessary qualities to play in the position.

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Arguably the best player in Europe in 09/10 as a focal point of attack for Inter under Mourinho

However, recently in the transfer market, two younger players have emerged who can have excelled in the number 10 position. The two are Eden Hazard, who has established himself as the best player in France with Lille and Shinji Kagawa who was integral in leading Dortmund to their second consecutive Bundesliga title even after the departure of Nuri Sahin. Both are emerging players in their early 20s, although having established status as successful players in very competitive leagues, it is still plausible that both have room for even further development. In the end, Eden Hazard went to Chelsea and Shinji Kagawa came to Manchester United. A comparison of their statistics can illuminate the traits that each player excels in.

The graph shows some of the statistics of the players discussed above based on the seasons. While all five set of performances show a generally similar curvature (signalling similar type of players), there are some telling differences. First is the high number of attempts on creating chances by Wesley Sneijer (red and yellow). The first set of criteria include shots per game (SpG), key passes per game (KPpG), crosses per game (CrpG), and long balls per game (LBpG). In all four of these criteria in both seasons sampled, Sneijder out numbers his competitors by a significant margin. This seems to suggest that Sneijder is more the type of a player who will look for the finishing move in the final third rather than a careful link up. Eden Hazard has some notable characteristics too (darkest and lightest blue). Perhaps fitting as a player who’s main position was also characterized as a winger he dribbles the most frequently out of the three players. Probably as a direct result, he loses the ball significantly more frequently than the other two players, but is also fouled significantly more often. Difference in defending styles and refereeing calls do exist between European leagues, and unfortunately all three players come from different leagues, which makes the call a little more difficult, but one can see that if Sneijder was focusing on making that final pass or shot, Hazard prefers to dribble in the opposition third a lot more. Shinji Kagawa (middle blue), surprisingly doesn’t record the highest statistics on any of the criteria shown in the graph. He does however, have a very low crosses per game statistic, adding weight to the suggestion that he is ineffective in wide position. A statistic not shown on the graph, but very interesting is Kagawa’s tendency to tackle. In the 11/12 season, Kagawa averaged 1.2 tackles per game, significantly larger than the runner up, Wesley Sneijder in 09/10 at 0.9 tackles per game. In defensive terms, Kagawa then has an edge, since we noted earlier that one of Rooney’s former strengths as a ‘number 10’ was his defensive contribution, especially in terms of ball winning. Considering that the attacking contributions of  ‘Rooney the number 10’ were significantly different from ‘Rooney the number 9’ in terms of the shots per game (3.5 vs 4.6), passes per key pass (19.7 vs 33.6), and crosses per game (2.2 vs 1.5), the best fit would have been Eden Hazard of 11/12 (2.8 shots per game, 21.4 passes per key pass, 3.5 crosses per game). Sneijder shoots far too often and crosses much too frequently (4.3 shots per game and 6.3 crosses per game in 10/11). Kagawa doesn’t provide enough crosses (0.8 per game in 11/12). However, since Eden Hazard ended up in Chelsea, let’s take a closer look at Kagawa and Rooney.

In terms of statistics, Kagawa falls behind Rooney in almost all places. He doesn’t score as much, doesn’t play the through ball as much, definitely doesn’t cross as much, and does not seem to be comfortable at playing long balls (a trait of Wayne Rooney often highlighted as part of his distribution skills). However, despite all of these short falls, Kagawa still creates as many chances per game as ‘Rooney the number 10’ (1.8 per game vs 2.1 per game).  Although Kagawa may not produce the magical and showy passes and shots Rooney provides, he will be able to create as many chances as he did, maybe in a different manner. His lack of long pass stats show that Kagawa is a primarily a short passer. Despite the return and reign of Paul Scholes in the United midfield, due to fitness reasons, a crucial member of the United midfield in the upcoming season probably will be Tom Cleverley. As show cased earlier last season before his injury, Cleverly is also a player who specializes on short passes and movement. In this respect, Kagawa’s tendency to play short passes and moving into channels may form a great partnership with Cleverley. This may also signal a new style of game plan Sir Alex Ferguson seemed to experiment with earlier last season. Alongside the superb partnership of Rooney and Hernandez up front coupled with the devastating run of Valencia on the right, a very defining factor for United’s dominance in the 10/11 run was the Giggs, Carrick, Scholes partnership in the center of the midfield. The technical superiority and calm of these three allowed United to control the tempo of the game at their own leisurely pace (albeit for the one crucial exception against Barcelona). However, as show cased against their first league defeat against Chelsea and their FA Cup finals defeat against Manchester City, the center of the midfield could be overrun by a surge of more energetic players and a game of higher tempo. Maybe as a direct result, in the first official match of the 11/12 season (Community Shield against City), Ferguson opted for a Cleverley – Anderson combination in the center. The energy and pace of the two players caught immediate attention, the highlight of which was the intricately crafted Nani chip. However, the immense movement and fluidity seemed to open up the defense a little too much, and with both Cleverley and Anderson severely injured early in the season, the experiment was prematurely terminated. However, the addition of Kagawa this season may signal attempts back to that model of play.

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Manchester United’s new chance maker?

After the first few games of the 12/13 season, it is still too premature to tell if any of this analysis is really correct. There is no doubt that Eden Hazard has immense talent. He has already collected more assists than the number of games this season and has a goal to himself also. Kagawa also scored a goal, seemingly characteristic unimpressive tap in front of the goal. But reflecting upon his performance in Dortmund, that goal exemplifies the strength of Kagawa and what he brings to Manchester United. He is a player with superb positional awareness, and someone who does not look for the headlight play, but keeps it simple yet effective. Kagawa may not quite be the super star to replace Rooney, but it seems that he too will get the job done.

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