When Louis Van Gaal first arrived at Manchester United, one of his very first decisions was to name a captain that would lead his team back to light after a disappointing last seasons campaign. The choice was rather simple, between the ageing Robin Van Persie and the England forward Wayne Rooney, Rooney was always going to be the likely winner. Rooney was one of the players who took most of the criticism following United’s performances last season and even during the current campaign under Van Gaal. Now it appears that the tide has finally turned for the Red Devils and Wayne Rooney will lead his team to a much needed Top 4 finish securing Champions League football for next season.
At the beginning of last season, Wayne Rooney’s days at Manchester United almost came to an end. Circling around the England striker was Jose Mourinho, who back then arrived at Stamford Bridge to begin his second stint with the club, and desperate to sign a striker who would lead the line in Chelsea’s bid for their third title under the Portuguese manager. The move never materialised and Rooney’s career at Old Trafford continued, which should be much to the delight of Manchester United supporters, as Rooney has shown both last season and this season why he is still their main striker and one of the finest in the Premier League – the very reason why Mourinho wanted the Englishman at Chelsea in the first place.
In many ways, Rooney is the perfect captain for Louis Van Gaal. The Dutch manager was forced to experiment with his squad for most of the season and at times it seemed even he himself wasn’t sure which formation and which players to start. However Wayne Rooney was a constant throughout the season, not making the starting 11 for only four matches, three of which he had to sit out following his red card against West Ham. With the Red Devils struggling with injuries and the team struggling for a shape and system, Van Gaal took the liberty to shuffle Rooney around the team. A player who has always started as a striker under the great Alex Ferguson and David Moyes was all of a sudden deployed behind Falcao and Van Persie, on either of the two wings and sometimes even at the base of midfield.
How did Rooney take his new role as a “Do it all”? He accepted it and worked for the team. Not that this helped his personal statistics as a striker, but Rooney did what the team needed him to do in that moment, without complaints, which tells a great deal about his character and justifies why it was he who Van Gaal chose as the team captain.
Now with Van Persie out injured and Falcao finally benched after some disappointing performances and a poor goal scoring record, it has fallen to Rooney to retake his most natural role, supported by the Spanish magician Juan Mata from one wing and the somewhat rejuvenated Ashley Young from the other. The effect was immediate. Since Van Persie’s injury and Rooney’s return to the striker role against Sunderland, the striker has netted 4 goals in 6 appearances. That is a full third of his overall season goal-scoring tally.
Van Gaal was quoted earlier this season saying: “Manchester United are missing a 20 goal a season striker.” However Rooney surely is that striker and he always has been. Compared to this season’s (not yet but almost sure to be) 20 goal forwards Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa and Harry Kane, Rooney comes out as one of them.
In terms of goals scored, the England captain comes out behind all 3 of his competitors who each have 19 goals whilst Rooney has only netted a dozen, which can go down to the fact he has played in midfield more often than not over the course of this season. He has also contributed with 5 assists, just one less than Sergio Aguero. It is interesting to note that last season, despite playing almost the same amount of minutes as he already had this season, Rooney managed double his current tally for assists.
He comes just behind Diego Costa in the chances created and key passes columns with 1.49 and 1.31 respectively, whilst the Brazilian born Spaniard has managed to create 1.76 chances per game for his teammates and contributed with 1.62 key passes. However yet again, Rooney’s statistics for last season show he was much more of a contributor to his team mates when he played in his favorite striker role, creating an average of 2.06 chances a game and giving 1.69 key passes.
His pass completion reaches a very high 84%, which is just behind Sergio Aguero (85%), but well ahead of Diego Costa (77%), Harry Kane (75%) and himself last season (80%). That can again go down to the fact that from midfield, the striker has more options and is often not under so much pressure as two centre backs aren’t always on his back. Similar goes for Sergio Aguero, who likes to come deep for the ball and then run at defenders or play the ball wide, on the other hand, Costa and Kane are both target man and their movement is mostly off the shoulders of defenders and on the wings where they hold the ball up, awaiting reinforcements. They both have less solutions and often are under more pressure, hence the lower pass completion rate.
The Red Devil finds himself just behind Harry Kane (1.09) for successful tackles with 0.87, again bettering his last season statistic of 0.7 tackles per game. He has also won more aerial duels (1.28) than he has last season (0.85). For comparison, Sergio Aguero has only one 0.31 duels per game, with Costa (1.48) and Kane (1.93) bettering both the England skipper and Argentina international. However Rooney comes on top in terms of the percentage of aerial duels won with 35.7% ahead of Costa (29.6%), Kane (28.76%) and Aguero (24.14%).
It is Aguero, the striker who likes to run at defenders, who unsurprisingly comes on top with 3.19 successful take-ons per game, followed by Kane at 1.88, Costa with 1.3 and Rooney, who completes 1.2 take-ons per game. Rooney’s succession rate in this discipline is however the second highest (58.62%), just 0.06% behind Aguero who has 58.68%. However Rooney was even better last season when he managed a very high 63.08% rate of successful take-ons.
Manchester United have had their fair share of problems over the last two seasons, but Van Gaal’s words of United needing a 20 goal a season striker seem a bit unfair on Rooney who has every attribute to reach that tally if only he was deployed in that role all season. Bearing in mind that all of the above strikers play in teams who use different formations and the players have different playing styles, the United skipper does not come behind far behind either of these 20 goal a season strikers. Van Gaal will most probably land a new striker with both Falcao and Van Persie set to leave, however the Dutchmans priority should be to sort out his defense.
Manchester United have finally found some stability and the midfield isn’t much of a concern anymore either, with the ageing Carrick being ever so important as well as the previously much maligned Fellaini, who has now suddenly become “undroppable”. Ander Herrera has also found his role in that midfield three and his link up play with Juan Mata is only getting better and better. Carrick isn’t a long term player and he would be the only one that could find himself replaced by a younger player, but with Daley Blind already in United’s squad, that position is not much of a concern either.
Memphis Depay looks set to join the Red Devils from PSV, which is a signing that makes perfect sense for United. Depay has pace and directness to contrast the intelligent, slower style of Juan Mata who would most probably start on the other wing. Not to mention that Angel Di Maria is on United’s books as well. What remains is therefore the central defense position, where Mats Hummels looks set to join, claims which have been strengthened even more following Jurgen Klopp’s impending departure from Borussia Dortmund. Antonio Valencia, as well as he has played this season, is not a right back and is currently played there mostly out of necessity. The left back position is covered by Blind, Rojo and Shaw. Rather than focusing on a stiker such as Cavani, Van Gaal should focus on his defense, keeping De Gea in Manchester, bringing in Depay and possibly one central midfielder, but the 20 goals a season should be left to Wayne Rooney.