There’s no doubt about it: Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney appears angst-ridden at present, frustrated with the world at large and far removed from the joys of the early part of his career at Old Trafford, when a smile always seemed to accompany him onto the field of play.
Those joys of youth now appear a very distant memory indeed, as witnessed by his recent reactions to being substituted by manager Sir Alex Ferguson, most notably at Upton Park and even in the heady atmosphere of the pre-Premier League title celebrations against Aston Villa.
Rooney is still one of the top flight’s marquee performers; of that there is no doubt. However, this is a player who is 27, lest we forget, and who should now enter the prime of his career.
Instead, he has been shunted back to an unfamiliar, deep-lying central midfield role of late, while it was as a pacy, explosive goalscorer that he first made his name a decade ago.
From the time that Rooney first broke onto the scene, becoming the youngest scorer in the history of the European Championship against Switzerland at Euro 2004, to being crowned the Professional Footballers’ Association Footballer of the Year six years later, the Croxteth-born attacker seemed to have the world at his feet.
Bizarre as it may seem now, the United front man was often mentioned in the same breath as both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi during that period, and when he scored goals such as his never-to-be forgotten spectacular overhead kick against Manchester City in February 2011, you could understand exactly why.
And yet, can you ever imagine either of those two world superstars being asked to play in such an alien role to them, patrolling in front of their back four, in the peak years of their careers? Do not forget either that Rooney is a year younger than his former United teammate Ronaldo.
As we saw with his sublime pass from deep to create Robin van Persie’s stunning volleyed goal against Villa recently, Rooney can certainly play in this new position, but it will take time nonetheless for him to get to grips with it. Perhaps more pertinently, does he really want to operate in that part of the pitch as opposed to up front?
One thing that was very noticeable as well in his recent display against Villa was the number of times Rooney gave the ball away, which seasoned observers at Old Trafford say he has done much more frequently of late and which he never used to do earlier in his career.
All of which begs the question: Does Rooney have the instincts to play this new role? One thing he absolutely must learn very quickly is that, unlike in his previous position in attack, if you give the ball away in midfield, you will get punished.
Rooney could do worse than to take a close look at teammate Ryan Giggs as an example of someone who still, even at 39, never gives away possession.
The worrying aspect of all this as far as the player is concerned is that the dilemma at Old Trafford now appears to be: “How and where can we fit Wayne into the team?” One thing is abundantly clear: It is not in his favoured central striking role any more, that is for sure, as the arrival of van Persie this season has ably demonstrated.
The Netherlands international is now without doubt Ferguson’s first-choice front man, as Rooney has discovered on more than one occasion already this campaign. His omission from the United starting lineup for the club’s most important fixture of the entire season against Real Madrid at Old Trafford in March was a final confirmation of this fact, if it were needed.
That incident must have really wounded the player badly, as just a few years ago he was the main man at United, yet now he is not even Ferguson’s go-to man in attack for a season-defining contest.
World-class players, as Rooney clearly felt he was when brazenly demanding a new bumper five-year contract from United in October 2010, do not get usurped from their preferential roles, pigeon-holed into unwanted positions and hooked early in games the team need to win.
There is more bad news for Rooney on the horizon too if reports in the English press of late are to be believed. Ferguson reportedly is keen to bring another top-level centre forward to Old Trafford this summer, either Borussia Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski (via The Express) or Atletico de Madrid’s Radamel Falcao (via The Daily Mail).
Clearly Rooney's boss at United does not see a long-term future up front for the 27-year-old, and with now just two years left of that big-money, £180,000 per week deal that he forced from his employers three years ago, this is a massive summer ahead for Rooney, whose United career appears to be very much at a crossroads.
At the crux of this whole matter is that ultimately Rooney wants to be United’s No. 1 forward, and if he is not seen as that by Ferguson, then he may soon have a decision to make, especially as his next contract will be his last big deal in football.
Mega-rich Ligue 1 side Paris Saint-Germain are rumoured to be interested in taking the player to the Parc des Princes for next season (via The Daily Mail). Realistically, they are one of only a number of clubs in world football who would be able to afford both Rooney’s £40 million asking price and his astronomical wage demands.
Meanwhile, distance has also clearly grown in the previous father-son relationship that he developed with Ferguson after first arriving at the club nine years ago, undoubtedly not helped by his threat to quit United to join their arch-rivals City in October 2010, with the pair now understood to simply enjoy a cordial working relationship, at best.
Where does this all leave the man himself then, finishing his career at United as a creative midfield player? Do not put your house on that being the case, or Rooney still being at Old Trafford next season either.