At 27 years of age, it would only be natural to assume that Wayne Rooney should be at the peak of his powers.
And yet, for Manchester United’s crunch Champions League encounter with Real Madrid (arguably United’s biggest game of the season), the England striker was left out of the starting line-up.
It begs the question – and one that I’ve been pondering for a while – has Wayne Rooney become the player we’d all thought he’d be?
Just ask yourself this; would Barcelona leave out Lionel Messi for such a massive encounter? Would Real Madrid leave out Cristiano Ronaldo? Would Chelsea leave out Fernando Torres? (Ok, Chelsea probably would, but you get the idea).
Rooney is widely recognised as one of the world’s top strikers – but surely that tag has to be scrutinised when you consider that he was overlooked for such an important match-up. While the reaction to Rooney’s place on the bench kicked up quite a fuss on a certain social network platform (even Mrs Rooney had her say), should anyone have been that surprised by Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision? Sure, Rooney is a first team regular, but he looked completely overawed in the first leg between the two sides.
And it’s not the first time that Rooney has looked suspiciously off-key in a high-profile environment. Just look at Rooney’s contribution (or lack of it) at the major international tournaments he’s participated in. The 2004 European Champions apart where, admittedly, he was sublime, Rooney has more often that not failed to deliver.
At the 2006 World Cup Rooney went into the tournament trying to find fitness but ended up going home in disgrace after petulantly kicking Ricardo Carvalho in the groin. Four years later in South Africa Rooney’s performance level was once more awry with the striker vociferous in his anger following a game against Algeria. And finally, last summer, Rooney again failed to inspire England as Roy Hodgson’s tepid outfit lost to Italy in the quarter-finals – a game in which Rooney afforded Andrea Pirlo far too much space to dictate the rhythm of the match.
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At Manchester United, the Old Trafford faithful sing about ‘The White Pele’ – and therein lies some of the problem.
When Rooney first burst onto the scene as a burly 16-year-old his impact couldn’t of been any greater. Instant comparisons were drawn with the game’s greats. He was quickly branded by media and fans alike as England’s answer to Maradona or Pele – and, in fairness, who could blame them? After all, Rooney’s introduction into first team football at the highest level was frighteningly devastating in its execution.
On his Everton debut he curled in a 25-yard screamer past England keeper David Seaman to cut-short Arsenal’s 30-match unbeaten run; “Remember the name, Wayne Rooney,” you may recall. Indeed, people did remember. It was impossible not to notice this youthful, enthusiastic (sometimes too enthusiastic) and energetic youngster who seemed to possess so many outstanding attributes.
At 18, Rooney made his mark at Euro 2004 by scoring four times and running riot against the likes of France, Switzerland and Croatia. Even amongst much more established company, England failed to cope with Rooney’s absence as he hobbled off injured early on in the quarter-final against Portugal. England duly went out (as they do).
After starring on both his Everton debut and his first appearance at a major finals, Rooney produced yet another remarkable bow. This time it was his first game for new club Manchester United.
The transfer made Rooney the most expensive teenager in the world, although the Scouser swiftly eradicated any signs of pressure by netting a sensational hat-trick in a Champions League tie against Fenerbache. This was the sign of something truly special. England, it seemed, had produced a player who had all the ingredients to become a global superstar.
His temperament would require work, but when it came down to raw footballing ability, Rooney had the lot. Vision, awareness, power, determination, strength, skill and a goal scoring pedigree. What more could you ask for in a centre-forward?
Fast forward to 2013 and we’re asking ourselves – has Rooney fulfilled that potential?
In many ways, yes. He’s won the Premier League four times, the League Cup three times and the Champions League once in 2008 – along with a number of individual awards.
Although, I can’t help but be inclined to say “no, he hasn’t fulfilled his potential”. His exploits for the national side in major finals suggests as much. Similarly, his performances in some of Manchester United’s high profile games have been questionable – not least his display in the Bernabeu a few weeks back.
Has Rooney become the victim of his own outstanding ability? It’s a fair argument. We’ve already seen this season (and many times in the past) that Rooney’s versatility and diverse skill set has allowed Ferguson to pick him in more unfamiliar roles than he’d probably wish for.
He’s played upfront, just off the front, on the left, on the right and, in the league game against Chelsea earlier this season, he was almost playing as a central midfielder.
Rooney’s rounded attributes gives Ferguson the opportunity to utilise him in a number of positions but this only appears to have been detrimental to the player’s long-term development. Could you see Robin van Persie being shifted out to the right wing? What about Messi? Or Falcao?
The very best players have a position and that’s where they play. Rooney can play in a variety of roles but is he really exceptional at one? I’d argue that he isn’t. His statistics demonstrate that Manchester United have had a wealthy return on their investment - that much is for sure. But at what point do you separate a good player from a great one? And which category does Rooney fall into?
Surely, to be a great player then you must be considered indispensable. Ferguson’s selection only furthers the argument that Rooney isn’t – even in his prime years as a footballer.
There’s no doubting that Wayne Rooney is a player who has always held a remarkable talent. Has he channelled that talent to become a truly world class performer? I’d say no. His non-selection against Real Madrid wasn’t a complete confirmation of that belief. It was merely another contributory factor among a host of other reasons to suggest that Rooney hasn’t reached the peaks we expected him to by the time he was 27.