Much has been made in the past, and once again recently by some journalists, about how some of those at Everton Football Club used to boast that a young Wayne Rooney was genuinely capable of playing any position on the pitch -- even goalkeeper. Quite obviously, there was some hyperbole there but the excitement over his talent and natural versatility was clearly awed by many. The 26-year-old is now entering his ninth season at Manchester United and during his time at the club, he's excelled in multiple attacking roles. He's even arguably reached the heights of world-class in more than one position at various times -- winger, out-and-out striker, support striker, and most recently -- before a dip in form -- as a No.10.
It is because of this versatility, and also due to Rooney's propensity to lose form at times, that discussion often pops up debating what his best position is. He has been in disappointing form for a good portion of 2012 but because of his recent impressive performances at the tip of United's new midfield diamond, it is not surprising to observe discussion from many wondering if the time has come for Wazza to feature more regularly in central-midfield. Sir Alex Ferguson has a plethora and variety of quality attackers to call upon in his strike force, but he does not have a reliable energetic presence in the center of the park. Phil Jones has the physical attributes but he's far from proven while the proven Darren Fletcher cannot be depended on due to the unpredictable nature of his debilitating bowel condition. Anderson is simply, Anderson. Because of squad circumstances, it may be worth exploring over the upcoming months whether Rooney can ignite United's midfield.
Rooney's main role since the run-in of the 2010/11 season, a time when the fantastic Jonathan Wilson pondered whether the talented attacker had become the quintessential English No.10, has generally been as a player that looks to exploit the space between the opposition's midfield and defense lines. During that spring of 2011, Rooney had gone nearly a year in disappointing form and that was following a time when he was a genuine world-class out-and-out striker for the 2009/10 season. The Englishman looked reinvigorated in a role that was properly represented by the No.10 on the back of his United shirt. Here is how Wilson described him just prior to United's 2011 UEFA Champions League final versus FC Barcelona:
"Now he is back, though, he is a phenomenon; because as both a typically English player and a number 10, he offers a unique blend of skills. Perhaps his touch is not quite as deft as a Luka Modric or a Juan Roman Riquelme, perhaps his close control is a fraction off; but he is explosive and powerful and seems almost to relish tracking back. He is somehow both midfield shuffler and creator and while that may diminish his aesthetic appeal, it also means United can field two ball-playing central midfielders in Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs without fear of being overrun."
Since that final versus Barcelona at Wembley, when Rooney's failure to track deep-lying midfielder Sergio Busquets factored in heavily to United being overrun in midfield, United's No.10 lost the vigor and desire that made him such a great player in that role. In fact, as Rooney became less willing to drop deep and to help out in the midfield battle as United's 2011/12 season evolved, his touch and decision-making declined as well. He was far from a poor player -- as his impressive 35 goals in all competitions indicates -- however, his goal-scoring did go a long way to mask his increasingly waning influence. He was far from a No.10 anymore as he continually sputtered attacks and his failure to help out in midfield when United were out of possession resulted in the likes of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick being left without adequate protection.
As the past summer evolved, Rooney's form worsened for England at Euro 2012 and United went on to sign Shinji Kagawa, the outstanding No.10 for the recent back-to-back Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund. The solution seemed to be that the newly signed Japanese international would take over the playmaking duties while Rooney's overall responsibilities would be simplified by having him move higher up the pitch in order to focus mainly on bagging goals -- perhaps similar to his 2009/10 role. However, United then signed Robin van Persie -- the best No.9 in England -- and by the second game of the season versus Fulham, Rooney had been dropped in favor of these recent signings. To make matters (seemingly) worse, he would go on to be carted off after a nasty gash on his thigh ended his brief substitute appearance. This left many wondering what the former talisman's role would be when he returned from injury and there was also concern that he might not take well seeing van Persie and Kagawa make strong initial impressions in their No.9 and No.10 roles, respectively -- the two main ones the Englishman had played at Old Trafford since 2009.
When Rooney returned from injury, he appeared to look slimmer (he had admitted to returning to Carrington at season's beginning weighing more than desired) and he was much more energetic on the pitch. With the recent knocks to wingers Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, and with the erratic form of Nani thus far this season, Ferguson improvised by experimenting with a narrow midfield diamond in a recent Capital One Cup clash with Newcastle United. Wazza was at the tip of it and even though United were up against a Magpies' side that was missing numerous first-choice players in a competition that is either third or fourth most important for English clubs, it was encouraging to see him contribute with a positive performance. In fact, he actually played slightly deeper than he did as a No.10 in a Ferguson's usual 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1ish system and as the old adage goes, it appeared that he touched nearly every blade of grass during his return.
United have continued to impress in a midfield diamond and even though the club has yet to face elite competition while playing in this shape -- although away to CFR Cluj in Romania and away to a nearly full-strength Newcastle side in a Premier League tie are far from easy fixtures -- the early returns from this trial with the diamond shape have been encouraging. United have controlled midfield battles and Rooney, in particular, has thrived at the tip of the midfield diamond. Once again, his explosiveness and drive is influencing matches as he's been important in screening for passers such as Cleverley and Carrick -- he's even been seen tracking back and providing cover for Patrice Evra and Rafael near their full-back zones. In addition, his four assists and eight chances created in three matches at the tip of a midfield hints that his creative prowess might be returning.
There is one big obvious weakness to a midfield diamond system -- the vulnerability to being possibly being overrun on the flanks by your opponent. When this became an issue versus Newcastle this past weekend, Ferguson brought on Valencia to secure the right flank but this substitution came at the expense of losing a central-midfielder. United went from being in a midfield diamond with two strikers to playing with a midfield trio and with wide attackers securing the flanks. Rooney dropped further back alongside Carrick and Cleverley and he offered protection against formidable Newcastle midfielders Yohan Cabaye and Chiek Tiote. In fact, it's quite impressive how up to the challenge Rooney was in his encounter with the imposing Ivorian. Not only did the United midfield look reinvigorated with Wazza in it, but so did the player himself. Judging by a tweet of his after the match, he seemed excited by his recent midfield roles:
"Great win today. Really enjoying my new midfield role. Always involved in the game"
The recent happenings -- United's midfield diamond and Rooney's improved form these past few weeks -- have been positives but there needs to be caution in proclaiming anything as a solution to the midfield's woes. With RvP's fine form up top, Kagawa's clear preference to play as a No.10, and Rooney's interest at the moment to play in midfield, it certainly appears worth exploring whether the latter might be able to have an influence in a midfield duo (4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1) or in a midfield trio (4-3-3). His industry and tidy distribution (87.6% passing accuracy in his past three matches) in a midfield diamond hints that he could and when the diamond is used, then Rooney is the top candidate for now at the tip of it. It's been a few years since United have had a proper screener in the center of the park but that might be a challenge that the former talisman is up for and perhaps more importantly, one that he needs right now.