But without a natural position and a tendency to sit deep, it’s certainly possible to suggest that Rooney should not be the player David Moyes builds his team around.
The younger, more technically adept Juan Mata should be the key figure in the team.
The problem, however, is that Rooney would have to play as a classic No. 9 in that instance. And even though he has flourished in that role in Robin van Persie’s absence, his proclivity to go looking for the ball and reluctance to play on the shoulder of the last defender is what will hurt United.
Rooney Lacks a Natural Position
It’s a problem United have seen before with Dimitar Berbatov, whose propensity to play in front of the defence rather than threatening behind it proved costly. Rooney is a far superior player to Berbatov, of course, but like the Bulgarian, he lacks the raw pace and smart movement that the very best strikers possess.
And that’s where van Persie and Javier Hernandez become relevant, because they are two forwards who play the out-and-out striker role better than Rooney. Their inclusion ensures that United’s line-up is more balanced.
The worry in playing Rooney in the No. 9 position is that he will seek the ball rather than wait for a killer pass from Mata or Shinji Kagawa.
In the win over West Ham, where Rooney played well up front, there were signs of a problem that may become clearer in the coming months.
United played mainly on the counter-attack which, in the first half especially, worked to great effect. But the aforementioned trio of Rooney, Mata and Kagawa played in close proximity, and that won’t work when United have to break teams down at home.
At Old Trafford, they will have to be proactive in taking the game to the opposition, rather than playing on the counter. And that’s where Rooney may become a problem. He demands possession, which is no bad thing; it’s just that he will drift deeper and make it easier for defenders to play against him.
The obvious solution is to play Rooney in midfield, something that he has done on occasion in the past. It’s an argument that has been revisited numerous times, but there’s certainly merit in considering it again now that United have Mata to play in the No. 10 role.
Rooney was excellent for United in central midfield at the start of the 2012/13 season, but it was only ever a temporary measure. Holding him down to a regular spot in that position is a much tougher task, and it was the reason he wanted to leave United last summer, per Sam Wallace of The Independent.
United Look Balanced Without Rooney vs. Newcastle
In between the two Champions League quarter-final ties vs. Bayern Munich, United cruised to a 4-0 win over Newcastle despite Rooney’s absence through injury.
Mata and Kagawa revelled in having more space to play in, and Hernandez demonstrated that United need to have at least one genuine striker on the pitch to play balanced football. Certainly, United can’t get away with having three No. 10s against the bigger and better teams.
And so whilst many pundits and fans have pointed to Kagawa’s rejuvenation and Mata’s arrival as the beginning of the end for van Persie at United, perhaps it is Rooney who should miss out. Should being the operative word, because Moyes is unlikely to drop Rooney out of fear of how Rooney would react.
Regardless, a triumvirate of Kagawa, Mata and van Persie has a more balanced, purposeful feel about it than a Kagawa, Mata and Rooney partnership does.
What Does the Future Look Like for Rooney at United?
With Moyes in charge, it’s inconceivable to think that Rooney would be treated as anything other than United’s main man.
Moyes’ decision to keep Rooney on the pitch during the second leg against Bayern Munich, at a time when he was clearly lacking sharpness, highlights that the Scot holds Rooney in high regard.
Therefore, Rooney will likely play as a No. 9 or No. 10 even if it means that Mata, Kagawa or van Persie has to play out of position.
But if injury keeps Rooney out of action in the remaining five games of the current campaign, especially now that United’s season is done and dusted, Moyes should take the chance to play a natural striker with Kagawa and Mata playing in behind.
The chances are that United will be better off for it.
All stats from WhoScored.com unless otherwise stated.