Everton face Arsenal in the Premier League this weekend, nearly 15 years to the day since a wonder-strike from a teenage Wayne Rooney earned the Toffees a 2-1 win over the then league holders. All these years later, Rooney finds himself back at his boyhood club ahead of another clash with Arsène Wenger.
Now 31, Rooney’s dazzling career has been on a downturn for some time and a move away from Manchester United was inevitable. With Everton goal-machine Romelu Lukaku going in the opposite direction, United off-loaded Rooney to his former club on a free transfer in July.
Despite Everton’s shambolic start to the season, Rooney has arguably been one of their stand-out performers, notching three Premier League goals in eight games, including a late-equaliser against Brighton last-time-out. However, his move symbolises a backwards step for Everton and his presence in the team may be an underlying cause of their sub-par performances.
New Era, Old Player
During a summer of hope and optimism, Everton purchased a number of young talents to fuel their claim for a top-four place. Big money moves for the likes of Gylfi Sigurðsson, Michael Keane and Jordan Pickford left many tipping Everton as a potential surprise-package this season.
Of all their summer signings, Wayne Rooney was the anomaly – a strange throwback that didn’t really make sense for a club whose philosophy is very much geared towards the future. Though some believed it would be a perfect move for both parties, signing a player who left the club 13 years ago is surely contradictive of Everton’s new era policies.
Regardless, the Toffees find themselves lingering in the bottom half of the table after eight games following a series of disappointing displays.
Ronald Koeman is taking most of the flak at the moment, but many factors have contributed towards the Blues sub-standard opening two months. It’s immediately obvious when watching Everton that they lack speed and do not move the ball quick-enough in the final third. Meanwhile, Koeman is yet to find a consistent formation and structure that suits his players.
Most significantly, Everton have failed to address the loss of Romelu Lukaku – and this is by no means easily-done. The Belgian scored 25 league goals for the Toffees last season and was their focal-point in the final third. With his summer exit unavoidable, Everton lost their prized-asset and main goal-threat.
Irrespective of his technical ability, Lukaku has proven himself as a relentless out-and-out goal scorer. Moreover, his ability to occupy opposing centre-backs and constantly ask questions is an underrated quality that any team needs from their striker.
Everton acted quickly in the summer to find their replacement, signing Sandro Ramírez from Málaga before purchasing Rooney. One would assume that Sandro was the intended long-term replacement for Lukaku, but the former Barcelona man has made little impression so far. Meanwhile, Rooney has appeared frequently, being accommodated into the starting line-up for most games.
Rooney’s impact was immediate, returning to Goodison Park in style, scoring an emotional opening-day winner against Stoke. Then, a first-half goal against Manchester City a week later earned Everton a draw at the Etihad. But Everton’s form has since dipped and Rooney’s role appears increasingly counter-productive to the team.
The Englishmen is no longer the powerful, menacing forward he once was – he hasn’t been for some time. It’s clear that he doesn’t possess the necessary qualities to play as a number nine whilst his presence in a deeper-role is often ineffective and ponderous. Despite this, Ronald Koeman seems intent on catering for Rooney in whichever system he plays.
Last weekend at the Amex, the Dutch legend deployed Rooney as Everton’s lone-striker. Yet the Englishman failed to provide a focal-point, nor did he pose any questions beyond the Brighton backline. Instead, Rooney frequently dropped deep to needlessly involve himself in possession leaving Everton lacking penetration.
Previous weeks have seen Rooney deployed in a deeper attacking-midfield role and on either side of the forward-line. As has been the story with much of his later career, Koeman is another manager who seems unable to find Rooney his best position. Yet unlike José Mourinho last season, the Everton boss always seems to find a place for the former red.
It’s not Rooney’s fault that Everton have failed to replace Lukaku with a capable centre-forward. Had it not been for the surprise return of Oumar Niasse against Bournemouth, the Blues may be even further down the table. The hard-working Senegalese’ story was infectious, but few will view him as the long-term replacement for Lukaku.
Of course, it’s notoriously difficult to find a quality centre-forward who ticks all the boxes – particularly without the attraction of Champions League football. But retrospectively, Everton may have faired better sticking to their philosophy of buying young and hungry prodigies.
Perhaps a move for Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham would’ve been more beneficial, for example. Or even Christian Benteke, still only 26 and a capable Premier League goalscorer could have provided some firepower.
Had Everton purchased a true centre-forward, the Rooney signing may have appeared less-strange. Older players do have their worth and often provide much-needed experience in the dressing-room. Everton’s Tom Davies has recently praised Rooney for his impact on the training ground but rarely do these experienced heads play as frequently as the Englishman has.
Can Koeman Turn It Around?
Rooney’s Everton comeback seems like a nostalgic, blast from the past. A return of the prodigal son, who by the way, showed little affection for his boyhood club during his time in Manchester. Ronald Koeman must stop accommodating Rooney and instead utilise him only when necessary. Otherwise, Everton will continue to look flat.
It may seem a harsh criticism of their current top scorer, but the productivity of the team must come above the individual. It will be of no surprise to see Everton looking for another striker come January. Meanwhile, England’s record goalscorer could still contribute, but should do from a more withdrawn role.