Pedestrian, uninspired and largely devoid of any creativity or drive in midfield, Manchester United’s wretched attacking performance for most of the 1-1 draw with West Ham was essentially a microcosm of the last four months under Louis van Gaal, a spell that has seen them steadily accumulate points but win few admirers, even within their own support.
Stung by an early-season defensive omnishambles at the King Power Stadium, the adoption of a more conservative style of play has been partly vindicated by a place amongst the top four but a return of just nine points (and seven goals) in their last six Premier League games raises doubts about the Old Trafford club’s ability to stay there.
Thus far unable to secure the top-level acquisitions so clearly required in both central defence and central midfield, and with the players in those positions bequeathed to him being unconvincing or simply unavailable, it’s hard to fault the Dutchman for taking a pragmatic approach in a season where securing a top four finish is the overriding objective. Even so, a side able to call upon the attacking talents of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao, Angel di Maria, Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj should surely not be suffering the ignominy of failing to get a single shot on target, as happened in the recent home defeat to Southampton.
While there are many reasons for United’s alarming toothlessness, it is the continued deployment of Rooney in a midfield role that stands out as particularly culpable. The captain has long been touted as a successor to Paul Scholes in the perenially problematic United engine room, with judges of the calibre of Sir Alex Ferguson, Fabio Capello and even Scholes himself pointing to the Liverpudlian’s work-rate, technical ability and eye for a goal as qualities that could see him successfully reinvent himself in a deeper role as he moves into the latter stages of his career. Scholes’ own transformation from forward to attacking midfielder and then string-pulling playmaker is seen by many as a career path Rooney is destined to follow.
The trouble is… Wayne Rooney is not Paul Scholes, and if you look beyond a few shared traits, they are not even that similar. Once settled into a conventional central midfield role, Scholes was an oasis of calm at the heart of the United side, always available to take the ball, almost impossible to relieve of it and supremely efficient in its distribution. For all his technical qualities, Rooney lacks the consistency of first touch and close control to be that reliable outlet in the face of pressing and is altogether too careless with his short passing, indicated by 1 in 4 passes going astray in recent games against Southampton and Spurs. Sure, the 29 year-old has the Scholes-esque eye-catching long diagonal pass in his locker, but even that value has diminished with excessive, injudicious use. You can get by with Rooney in midfield against more obliging opposition but against better sides, United are crying out for someone to link play with more speed and invention.
None of this is Rooney’s fault of course (much as his flirtations with oil-rich rivals and ructions with club legends have often earned him the opprobrium of the club’s supporters), but playing United’s number 10 as a de facto number 8 seems baffling when summer signing Ander Herrera appears to fit the bill much more readily. What’s more, Rooney is at his best as an explosive, marauding threat in the final third, not as this measured, within-himself shadow applying himself diligently, but without inspiration or real impact in the centre of the park. Closing in on goalscoring records for both club and country, this midfield iteration of Rooney has been restricted to just four off-target shots on goal in his last five league games and did not touch the ball once in the opposition box against West Ham.
Even if Van Gaal was unimpressed with his captain’s early-season efforts in a striking role, it still seems entirely counter-productive for both player and team, especially with the established front pairing of Van Persie and Falcao failing to fire and appearing too similar, both in need of a more suitable foil. Whilst the manager is on record both praising Rooney as something of a ‘total footballer’ and expressing a need for Herrera to improve, the current situation smacks of Van Gaal looking to accommodate as many of his star names as possible, to the detriment of attacking cohesion – the sort of aversion to making big decisions for fear of putting noses out of joint that was one of the hallmarks of his predecessor’s short reign.
Van Gaal’s reputation as a ruthless, single-minded operator will have been music to the ears of United supporters after Dithering Dave’s time in charge but thus far the axe has only fallen on relatively easy targets. For United to realise the attacking potential of this group of players, the Dutchman needs to swallow his pride and either restore Rooney to the forward line at Falcao or Van Persie’s expense or revoke the privileges he has said he affords his captain, dropping the Reds’ erstwhile talisman to the bench. A big call either way, but with a resurgent Tottenham and Liverpool joining Arsenal and Southampton in the mix, the all-important return of Champions League football to Old Trafford may depend on it.
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