Wayne Rooney has been one of our favourite players in Premier League history. He may not have had quite the technique of Cantona or the flair of Ronaldo.
But, for our money, he has been a more important player than either.
Rooney was integral to Manchester United’s Champions League success in 2008. But it was his work in the less distinguished Manchester United teams that really impressed us. United simply wouldn’t have as many titles in the trophy cabinet if they hadn’t signed the England captain back in 2004.
So we have been amongst the last observers to admit that, at 30 years of age, he may be on a terminal and alarming downward trajectory.
It’s natural that Rooney would lose some of his pace as he got towards 30. But the more ruthless might suggest that he has completely forgotten how to play football.
His wonderful touch has deserted him. He gets caught in possession far too frequently and his football brain – so sharp though his career – seems blunted to the point of outright mediocrity. Rooney spends his time chasing games at the moment.
We have seen spells like this before. In 2010-11 he looked as if he was wearing breeze blocks on his feet until he hit that fabulous overhead kick against City.
And, in terms of fitness, he is working as hard as ever. Only three strikers in The Premier League – Harry Kane, Graziano Pelle and Jamie Vardy – have covered more distance than the scouser this season.
So he’s putting in the miles. But it’s his choice of runs and general sharpness which is generating these worrying figures.
– He’s only hit 2 goals in The Premier League in 15 matches this season
– 1 goal every 525 minutes of play
– 0 assists all season
Manchester United legend Sir Alex Ferguson once said of Rooney:
‘In my opinion he was not the quickest learner but what he had was a natural instinct to play the game,’
‘In a training ground exercise he wouldn’t absorb new ideas or methods quickly. His instinct was to revert to type, to trust what he already knew.’
And perhaps therein lies the problem. Louis van Gaal is asking his players to play in a different way than they are used to – to go against their football instincts and instead use their heads.
It’s a ‘process’ which hasn’t yielded particularly good performances and Rooney has suffered more than most.
He was excellent last season, but as a utility man who filled in all over the park. Now that he’s back up top his form has been laid bare and it doesn’t look too promising.
We saw Michael Owen’s form dissolve once he got close to 30. Other great strikers such as Fernando Torres and Andriy Shevchenko lost their magic with worrying speed as their pace deserted them.
Manchester United drew another blank at the weekend but, wth Rooney absent, they at least gave one of their more intense and fluid attacking performances of the season – albeit without making the crucial final intervention.
But this should be a huge warning to Rooney. He needs to start performing or he will soon find himself benched.
Manchester United fans: any way back for Wazza?