The Maturing of Wayne Rooney

By Paul Gardner

LONDON -- Wayne Rooney's career is coming to a close. Which seems ridiculous, given that my memory informs me that it was only last week that he was being hailed as a 16-year-old prodigy with Everton. My, how time has raced by.

That Rooney had extraordinary talent was never in doubt. Everyone agreed on that. But in the early days it seemed that he might waste it all, for he started to come over as a spoiled brat who liked to argue with and swear at referees and who was inclined to moments of soccer-rage that clearly he had to rein in.

Frankly, I soon felt that Rooney wouldn't make it. He looked altogether too undisciplined. But Rooney -- however he did it -- conquered his discontents and matured into the stardom that had been predicted for him.

Well, almost. Because of all the hype, there has always been a feeling that Rooney ought to be better. And now, nearing the end of his career, he has apparently become a problem because coaches and pundits feel that he ought to be different.

Playing differently, that is, playing a different role. At age 30 he is a bit slower than he used to be, he cannot be the bundle of muscular energy of old. Or so the thinking goes. But his coach at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho, insists that Rooney's best -- and only -- position is as a forward. The new England interim (which may or may not mean temporary) coach Gareth Southgate begs to differ, telling us that Rooney "can play any number of different positions and very well." While the recently disgraced England coach Sam Allardyce told Rooney he could "play wherever he liked."

For an aging player to adapt his game as the years take their toll is nothing new. Rooney has been reminded that two of his ManU colleagues -- Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs -- managed to prolong their careers by doing just that. The transformation inevitably involves a shift to a less energetic style. In Rooney's case, from a bustling goalscoring forward to a playmaking midfielder.

Definitely, we have lately been seeing Rooney more involved in midfield. But not always with great success. It is decidedly odd to read that midfield will suit Rooney because he can use his accurate passing more in that role.

A point must be made. At the very top level of soccer, the level at which Rooney has been thriving for two decades, it is -- it must be -- a given that the vast majority of the players, certainly those at the sharp end of the team, know how to pass accurately. If they don't, they would not be there.

But this is England and "accurate passing" has a special and limited meaning. It means the ability to hit a long pass accurately. That was one of the surpassing skills of Rooney's great predecessor at ManU -- Bobby Charlton.

Well, for sure, to see a 40-yard cross-field ball -- an aerial ball, of course -- pick out a teammate with pin-point accuracy is both impressive and exciting. To this day, such passes are still greeted in English stadiums with applause. That's right, applause -- not roars and cheers, but with clapping.

This almost polite reaction is incongruous these days -- but not more so than the 40-yard pass itself. That Rooney can hit such passes is not in doubt. But the value of them -- and therefore the notion that they make up a crucial part of Rooney's skill-set -- is very questionable.

He has other much more important assets. He talks sensibly about them. He told Henry Winter of the London Times: "It's obvious I'm not as quick as I was, but you can always have a football brain and I've got that."

Rooney seems to favor a new midfield role. But to have Scholes or Giggs - even Steven Gerrard has been suggested -- as role models is nonsense. The player who made the most successful late-career switch was the great Pele.

As a young player Pele was a goalscoring machine, an extraordinary dribbler, a deadly finisher. The world first saw his glittering skills in 1958 when his goals led Brazil to its first World Cup victory. He was 17 years old.

Twelve years later, in 1970, the soccer world again saw the skills of Pele as Brazil claimed another World Cup title. But these were rather different skills. Pele was now a 29-year-old midfield playmaker, a brilliant one. He could still score goals -- he got four in 1970 -- but it was his five assists that underscored his new role as a playmaker.

Pele was slower, of course he was. But did he slow the game down? I think he did, at crucial moments, when his "soccer brain," the very thing mentioned by Rooney, was working its magic. The unforgettable example came toward the end of the final against Italy, as Pele with the ball at his feet paused before rolling the ball softly and perfectly into the path of Carlos Alberto who smashed home a superb goal.

Pele's midfield role did not include long passes -- the team had Gerson to deliver those if necessary.

Rooney can now talk openly of playing in midfield -- "I feel I can control and dictate games from there." He should look carefully at the way Pele managed things -- still scoring goals, but making decisive assists, too. And I don't think he should listen to those critics who accuse him of slowing the game down.

7 comments about "The Maturing of Wayne Rooney".
  1. Vince Leone, October 8, 2016 at 1:41 a.m.

    Brits aside, who cares about Rooney? I thought this was Soccer America. I can also think of hundreds of non-U.S. players who are more interesting.

  2. Ric Fonseca, October 8, 2016 at 3:06 p.m.

    Vince, I couldn't agree with you much more!!! Leave it up to PG to come up with some doozys such as this one!!! Must've been yet another sloooooow day for PG!!!

  3. David V, October 8, 2016 at 9:24 p.m.

    Good points... whether it is Mickey, Andy, or Wayne... Brits aside who cares?

    However, what a silly comment about Pelé's position in '58... those, Paul, were the days of the 2-3-5 formation, you remember that don't you? You of course remember... Pelé himself talked about it years and years ago, don't believe everything you read on the net Paul. Garrincha, Didi, Vavá, Pelé, Zagalo... we used to call them "inside right" or "inside left"... Pelé was an "inside" back in '58, not an out-and-out striker. that position is similar to today's "forward underneath" or "shallow forward" or "attacking mid" a playmaker, etc, etc. Most people don't know this Paul, they think he was a pure "Ram" or "Center Forward" or later a "Striker"... shame on you Paul, he started with that position and always was that, but the remarkable thing is, that playmaker/shallow forward scored so many goals... the best thing about this comment is that you/we temporarily forgot about Mickey Rooney.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, October 9, 2016 at 3:12 a.m.

    People are mixed about what to call Brazil's formation in 1958 through 1970. I image most people were just as confused in the 1970s about what to call the Dutch total soccer formation. Many say Brazil played 424 or 433. Regardless Brazil played with 4 backs, not a 235 at all. While you can probably find somebody somewhere today still playing 235, that doesn't mean it is popular. I think the 424 and WM were more common during the 50s. I remember playing left half in a WM at a small town Midwestern high school pre-season practice for my varsity pointy football team in 1968. We called the attacking positions inside forwards instead of attacking midfielders back then. So if the WM was being used by a high school coach during preseason training for another sport in the back of beyond 100's of miles from any organized soccer, I suspect that the WM was very old news by 1968.

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, October 9, 2016 at 3:29 a.m.

    Although generalizations are not universal truths, I wanted to add that anyone that grew up playing 424 is going to play a 433 with a lot of shifting between lines because that is how the 424 was played. I find it interesting that both Brazil and the Dutch ended up with a very fluid style of play with interchange between lines. Maybe the answer to youth development is to use a 424 system that forces players to think dynamically as possession changes instead of today's fade of thinking of systems as unchanging formations of fixed geometric shapes. Futsal tactics essentially do that. They essentially use a 212 but with only 4 field players filling the 5 positions.

  6. Bob Ashpole, October 9, 2016 at 3:36 a.m.

    Pele's assist to Alberto Carlos is one of the world's most famous assists and goals. Most players probably would have dribbled to the right and dragged the defense to the right. Instead Pele fixed the defense in place to give the fullback, first, the time and space to make the run and then the ball on a platter. I would never say he simply waited. If he appeared to be waiting instead of threatening, the goal would never have been scored.

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, October 9, 2016 at 3:38 a.m.

    @(&#(& I mean Carlos Alberto.

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