Jose Mourinho surprised many with comments this week stating he plans to play Wayne Rooney as a striker and not in midfield as many predicted. The England and Manchester United captain has been playing in centre midfield for Roy Hodgson’s side at the European Championships and ended the season with his domestic side as a midfielder – performing well in their final games.
However, Mourinho made it clear the captain would be used as a goal threat despite most people writing him off as an effective striker. The Portuguese boss claimed Rooney’s goal threat will never change and it’s more difficult to find a player ‘to be there and put the ball in the net.’
Wayne Rooney is England’s all-time top goalscorer but after struggling in the forward role in recent seasons, it appeared he would merge into a midfield role to see out his career. The Manchester United captain was a burst of fresh air when he first made his full debut for Everton at the age of 16 and he set the Premier League alight with some unbelievable goals. Alongside Michael Owen, he was one of the most impressive attacking talent to come out of the English football academy in the last two decades and he has grown to become one of England’s most successful players.
However, it’s been a while since Rooney has been considered among those who are ‘world class’ and the yard of pace lost with his age appears to have made an impact on his career. United were often dependent on his goal-scoring and until Marcus Rashford burst onto the scene this season, the Red Devils were struggling to provide enough threat in front of goal. Rooney was often criticised for coming too deep – wanting to get hold of the ball and dictate the play. However, by doing so, his position was compromised in attack and there was very little target for United in front of goal.
Mourinho didn’t allude Rooney’s obvious lack of pace but instead insisted his ability to find the back of the net was too good to ignore and it’s clear Mourinho thinks he’d be better suited further up the pitch. It’s true that a goalscorer never loses the ability to score – Michael Owen himself proved that in his final days with Manchester United. However, there’s also proof of players losing their touch and that’s what’s appeared to have happened with Rooney despite still having a fairly good goal-scoring record. Last season, he netted 12 times for United – eight of those coming in the Premier League. He added six league assists too in 28 top flight appearances.
Rooney’s tendency to drop deep led to calls by many to play him in a midfield role. He’s always demonstrated an exquisite passing ability and Manchester United supporters believe he’s one of their best passers since the departure of Paul Scholes. Rooney looks like he enjoys the time and space to dictate play and certainly has the ability to play some delightful balls through to his attackers and to switch the play. However, Mourinho shrugged this off as a reason to play him in a deeper role – as a number 8 – stating anyone could be an amazing passer if they had no pressure.
The Portuguese could be onto something too. At the European Championships, Rooney was considered one of England’s better performances, although that doesn’t go far in terms of describing his success due to such a poor overall tournament performance from his team. However, when under pressure, Rooney didn’t appear to make as much impact and this was greatly seen in their encounter with Wales. Ramsey and Allen pressed the ball well in midfield and Rooney was unable to dictate play like he did in his final games of the 2015-16 season for United. Mourinho is so insistent on playing Rooney higher up the pitch as a result, claiming he’ll even play him as a ‘number 9 and a half’ but certainly not as a number 8.
But against most opposition in the Premier League, Rooney will be afforded more time and space in a deeper role. If Mourinho can drill his forward line into pressing hard and closing down the space – much like what his Chelsea side did – then Rooney can receive the ball in strong areas. His lack of pace does hamper him in attack but it’s less of a burden when sitting deep. Alongside Michael Carrick, he could dictate play and add stability and composure to United’s midfield. He may not be as effective as Mata in some games but with the Spaniard likely to be side-lined by his former Chelsea boss, there’s room for Rooney in midfield.
If Mourinho expects to see Rooney perform in attack, he may be left feeling disappointed. With plenty of other strike options (Ibrahimovic, Rashford, Martial, Lindegard and Mkhyitaryan,) it would be foolish to suggest Rooney could compete for a place ahead of them. However, the boss’ decision is the all-important one and Rooney may have to face enough season under pressure if he’s asked to deliver.