Friday 21 August 2015

Rooney's premature ageing can be stopped

A young, vibrant, exciting talent announcing himself to his new audience with a collection of sparkling Champions League goals; United fans have seen this all before.

What Memphis Depay did on Tuesday night, Wayne Rooney did in 2004.
Actually he went one better: three years younger than Depay at the time, he scored a hat-trick against Fenerbahce on his first European outing in a red shirt.

If that is the path, Depay is embarked upon, then we have a very good idea of where the ambitious Dutchman will be in 11 years time; bereft of form, scratching around for a goal, apparently allergic to the penalty box, seemingly no longer capable of being in the right place at the right time.

Because, this season, the magnificent Rooney of that introduction appears to have all but disappeared,
Rooney insists that his poor start is temporary and that he will recover, the goals will come.
It is just a matter of time.

His manager has been quick to support him, suggesting that any query about his performance demonstrates a lack of patience and consistency.

"You wanted him there" says Louis van Gaal, the United manager, of Rooney's current position, restored to leading the line after a season spent filling in gaps all around the pitch.

For sure, as the focal point of the attack, bullying the opposition into cowed surrender, is precisely who saw Rooney in 2004 would want him to play.
Or at least they would want that Rooney to be centre-forward- the carefree, pugnacious and daring Rooney, the Rooney entirely lacking fear or constraint.

But that Rooney is a long way from the restrained, sluggish figure he now cuts.

For those that have watched him over the years, the gathering fear is that there is nothing temporary about his decline.

The thing about the 18-year-old Rooney was that he arrived at Old Trafford fully formed: there was no suggestion that here was a player of potential who might, given proper nurturing, develop into something special.

He already was something special.

He had been like it since he first burst onto the scene for Everton as a 16-year-old, mature way beyond his years, physically and mentally perfectly attuned. 

Watching him in those early years, it was as if he was working on a different chronology to the rest of us, galloping through life at breakneck pace.
At 16 he was a man, at 18 he was an international, at 22 he was a European champion.
And now, still only 29, he looks as if he is nearing middle age.

Forget the easy jokes about his retreating hairline, it is in his gait, the scale of his thighs, the diminished acceleration and that the years are catching up with him.

While other players are reckoned to be at their physical prime in their late twenties, he peaked five years ago.
That does not mean he has no contribution to make.
He is way too good a player to simply slip entirely into turgid irrelevance.

As his delightful back-heel flick to set up Depay for the easiest of chances to complete a hat-trick against Brugge showed, his touch and vision remain undimmed.

Rooney can still serve a purpose.

But it does mean that LVG is being optimistic in his belief that Rooney these days belongs at no 9 in his line-up.
There are plenty- not least Rooney himself- who have long believed he would be better deployed behind the front man, using his guile and experience to create chances for younger, quicker types to exploit.

Maybe that is the most coherent immediate future for a player whose class has never been in doubt: play him at 10 and put someone else up front to do his running for him.

Someone like Depay, for instance. 

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