Think back to a nine-day span in the Spring of 2010. On March 30, Manchester United and thousands of its supporters had arrived at the Allianz Arena for the first of a UEFA Champions League quarter-final two-legged tie with German giants Bayern Munich. Life was grand for United as they topped the Premier League table while chasing what could be a record-setting fourth successive league title. In addition, Wayne Rooney had exceeded all expectations in his new role as an out-and-out striker to become United's talisman -- it was a season that followed the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. The Englishman arrived in Germany with a 33-goal tally in all competitions and he quickly added a 34th inside of 2 minutes in Munich. All was well. All was soon lost.
What followed was this series of unraveling events: Rooney injured his ankle later during the match in Munich, he missed what proved to be a league title-decider when United lost to Chelsea FC four days later because of that injury, and he returned too soon during the reverse fixture with Bayern on April 7 -- a nightmare at Old Trafford that saw United blow a 4-2 aggregate goal lead and exit European competition while Rooney limped off just short of the hour-mark.
United lost the league title. United failed to reach a third successive Champions League final. United lost the form of their talisman for a calendar year. How did it all go wrong?
Quite simply, Sir Alex Ferguson's side had become too reliant on Rooney.
Prior to the 2009-10 season -- specifically during the 2007-08 season when they conquered both England and Europe -- United were a side that typically played counter-attacking football in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid system during 'big matches'. This system often involved two relatively deep central-midfielders that were passers (Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick) alongside an industrious third player (Darren Fletcher, Anderson, or Owen Hargreaves) that freed up those passers. Ahead of them was a fluid and interchangeable front three that could break at incredible speed: Rooney, Ronaldo, and Tevez could play as either wide or central forwards -- depending on match-ups -- while Park Ji-sung was often deployed as a wide attacker in away matches. The quality of these attackers is obvious but their versatility provided Fergie tremendous tactical flexibility as well. United were far from reliant on a single player due to this.
The diagram below showcases this flexible 4-3-3/4-5-1 counterattacking system:
Following the departures of Ronaldo and Tevez in the summer of 2009, Dimitar Berbatov -- who had been brought to United during the summer of 2008 for a club record fee in the region of £30 million -- and Antonio Valencia -- who had been bought during the summer of 2009 for a fee in the region of £16 million -- had essentially become the prominent players who were viewed as replacements. In addition, the club had signed striker Michael Owen as well. All three players are -- and/or have been -- fantastic players but none provided the versatility of Ronaldo and Tevez*. If a certain match-up was hindering United, or if they faced tactics that troubled their side, Fergie couldn't simply move Berbatov or Valencia around into other attacking areas. Berbatov struggles without a striker partnership -- thus 4-3-3/4-5-1 is not an optimal system for him -- and he can't play out wide. ** As for Valencia, he can only play on the right flank.
* Obviously, Valencia has become an important and successful player for United but this highlights his limited positional flexibility.
** But he can play center-back!
Luckily for United, Rooney thrived in his increasing role as an out-and-out striker and this lessened the blow of Berbatov's inconsistencies. Rooney scored 26 league goals that season in this role -- prior to this current season, he had never scored more than 16 league goals in any other season -- and his prolific goalscoring was masking the loss of United's versatility from previous seasons. However, when United lost Rooney in early April of 2010, their alarming reliance on their talisman caused them to also lose the league title and another chance at a 4th European Cup for the club. Without Rooney's sheer match-winning ability, United were exposed as a side that were now stale and static in attack. They had become over-reliant on one man.
About a year ago -- following a period where he had a miserable 2010 World Cup, had embarrassing revelations about his personal life, and infamously threatened to leave United before signing a new contract -- Rooney regained his form and helped lead United to their record-setting 19th league title and to an appearance in the most recent Champions League final. His goalscoring rates had dropped from his career-high 2009-10 season but his assists had dramatically increased -- his combined goal and assist total from the 2010-11 season was still comparable to his previous campaign. Thus, his influence had not diminished once he regained his form last season in time for the run-in.
During this past calendar year, Rooney's role at United has differed from that 2009-10 one. Similar to his first five seasons at the club, he dropped deep again and linked the midfield to the attack. The space that Rooney typically occupies -- between the opposition's defensive and midfield lines -- is similar to that of a classic 'number ten' or 'trequartista'. However, that label is arguably inaccurate for him -- because he provides so much more.
Some between the lines attackers come into that space from deep, some float in that space while trying to slip a marker, and some drop deep into it from a striker's position. Rooney does the latter. From here, his unique blend of power with his precision in range of passing makes him an obvious world-class creator. He is able to penetrate a defense with powerful driving runs but he can also pick a pass that splits a defense. His work-rate and willingness to involve himself in his side's attacking moves allows him to take up impressively deep positions at times. From here, he can spray long-diagonal balls to the flanks for United's dangerous wingers (his 5.3 accurate long-balls is only bettered in the Premier League by goalkeepers, defenders, and midfielders -- players who have more natural incentive to play long balls from deeper positions) or he can calmly slide the ball out wide and bring the full-backs into attack.
Rooney's tremendous energy provides another important benefit -- the ability to win the ball. United's preferred shape for the past year has been a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1ish one. In this system, Rooney plays withdrawn from a lead striker -- typically Danny Welbeck or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) and his work-rate often prevents his side from being overrun versus opponents that deploy three-man central-midfields. When United are out of possession, Rooney tracks back so that he can engage in a battle to win the ball back. His combative ways can free up deeper-lying distributors such as Scholes, Carrick, Ryan Giggs, and Tom Cleverley.
The following diagram shows how United in a 4-4-1-1 shape with Rooney can still compete in midfield against sides that deploys three players in the center of the park:
Rooney's unique range of attributes in this withdrawn role brings up some questions for me: If United were to lose Wazza for a significant portion of time during the upcoming run-in, could they replace his attacking production? Probably not. Could they replicate his tremendous defensive qualities? Probably not. Could they find someone to provide cover for both of his attacking and defensive ability? Most certainly not.
Thus, it would obviously be difficult to provide adequate cover for Rooney if the talisman were to get injured. In addition, for reasons outlined earlier, United still look uninspiring when they are deployed in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 system. Perhaps then, they have become too reliant on their talisman again -- albeit in a different role this time around.
Possible deputies for Rooney?
* Dimitar Berbatov: The Bulgarian also prefers to drop deep but not to the same extent as Rooney. He does well to link play but he certainly doesn't provide the same defensive qualities as Rooney. Berbatov's involvement would mean United would play in a 4-4-2 shape -- one that would be vulnerable against three-man central-midfield sides.
* Ashley Young: The England international played both as a winger and as a central-attacking-midfielder for Aston Villa prior to his move to Old Trafford. Thus, much of Young's value was perceived to be in his versatility. However, when he had an opportunity to play behind a lead striker in November, he failed to inspire in that role versus Benfica during a Champions League tie. If given more games in this role, could he emerge as an able deputy?
* Park Ji-sung: The industrious and versatile attacker is able to link play well in a role behind a striker. He also provides the tactical benefit of harassing any influential deep-lying playmakers, such as he brilliantly did to Andrea Pirlo in 2010 when United faced Milan over a two-legged Champions League tie. However, United's recent FA Cup tie with Liverpool exhibited Rooney's importance as Park couldn't provide the same incisiveness in attack.
* Ryan Giggs: The legendary Welshman tends to play too deep and drift out wide when deployed in a similar withdrawn role from a lead striker role. While he has the quality to provide a final product, he often fails to take up the correct positions when deployed as a between the lines player while in a central role.
Do you feel United have become too reliant on Rooney again? How do you feel the club would manage if he were to get injured for a significant portion of time for the run-in? Would you prefer a system shift or do you feel someone on the squad could be an able deputy? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.