Georgina Turner
Friday October 22nd, 2010

Is Wayne Rooney done? -- Tim Delaney, San Antonio

This question was sent in when only Rooney's form was the subject of debate. Since then, his desire to leave Manchester United -- apparently based on a belief that the club had lost its pulling power for star players -- and subsequent U-turn (Rooney signed a new five-year, $280,000-a-week contract Friday morning) have made headlines. But the question remains: Will the 24-year-old -- who has gone from the best performances of his career to the worst at the flick of an ankle -- recover his form?

As I've said before, I think he was rushed back after that ankle injury he sustained against Bayern Munich at the end of last season. Since then he's scored two goals in 21 games, and one of those was from the penalty spot. Considering how brilliantly he had steered United through the season up to that point, you can't ignore the impact of that rushed recovery.

Now, in addition to citing the publicity surrounding his personal life, some are suggesting that his disillusionment with United (apparently bothering him since August) had dulled his sparkle. But his marital problems occupied headlines for a couple of weeks: Rooney hasn't played well since March. Plus, his recent comments about his fitness suggest a player who wanted to get out on the pitch. He didn't want his manager's protection.

Players go through more or less spectacular spells, and at this point it's still unthinkable that Rooney won't scale the heights again. Form is temporary, as the saying goes. But how long does a bad patch last before it becomes something more worrisome? If he's fit, and wants to play, yet still looks to have a satellite delay interfering with his touch and vision, some level of reassessment is natural.

Reaction from mans and media to his wish to leave Old Trafford included the whispered suggestion that he might never have been as good as a lot of us thought. He's obviously a naturally gifted player and a tireless athlete, we got that much right. This extended spell of lukewarm performances perhaps just reminds us that it takes more than one (albeit spectacular) 34-goal season to make a global superstar. Fortunately for him, few will be inclined to scratch out the acres of copy that had him as one of the world's finest forwards when he could have another seven or eight seasons to prove himself at the highest level. The feel-good factor surrounding his new deal (and new pay packet) might be just the tonic for him and for United's season.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the attacking flair of Blackpool this year, but I just don't see how in today's Premier League a "minnow" can compete for any major hardware. I know that in the old days, smaller sides competed for and even won some trophies, and I see that, very occasionally, smaller sides, though not actually "minnows" (more like tuna? marlins?), make decent runs -- see Fulham in Europa League and Portsmouth in the FA Cup -- but never quite get past the "whales" of the EPL. Are the days of minnows coming out of nowhere to win hardware gone for good? -- John Fricks, San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Sadly, it looks like only a major change in the way soccer is run here will see the return of the minnow. That's not to say that giant killings won't stay with us -- as Brentford and Northampton showed in the League Cup this season, beating Everton and Liverpool, respectively. Even a couple of years ago we had an all-Championship FA Cup semifinal between Cardiff and Barnsley, and that kind of improbably long run has never been that common.

But in terms of the league, it seems surviving relegation is the height of most promoted clubs' ambitions, and hitting the top half of the table a plausible, if remote, dream (Birmingham City did it last season, but it is a bigger club with a history of top flight soccer).

It all comes down to cash -- or rather, the gap between Premier League bank balances and the rest. When Brian Clough and Peter Taylor took Derby County from the bottom of Division Two to Division One champions inside five years (1967-72), they started by replacing most of the squad they inherited, and vexed the board by making generous offers for players behind their backs.

They repeated the feat in double-quick time at Nottingham Forest, which bounced from Division Two to the Division One title between 1977 and 1978, and made Trevor Francis the first British player to be sold for £1m in the process. There is unquestionable romance to Forest's achievements -- winning consecutive European Cups within a few years of coming out of the second division? It hadn't happened before and it won't happen again. But Clough could mix it with the big boys when it came to writing checks.

The opportunities for managerial wizardry to combine with decent financial backing are disappearing at lower levels. According to the last set of accounts analyzed by Deloitte, seven of Europe's 20 highest earners came from England, with Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Newcastle enjoying combined revenues of almost $2 billion. In total, EPL revenues are more than $3 billion at the last count.

To put that into context, Premier League clubs' "solidarity payment" to the Football League (72 clubs) is set at $227 million. The top flight has negotiated the best broadcast revenues, can rely on the largest matchday revenues (even if attendances are slipping) and attracts the lion's share of commercial revenues. There's an established pattern of relegated clubs heading into insolvency. The gap is now vast.

A question that came via Twitter but disappeared into the ether before I noted the sender: "Why didn't Alberto Aquilani cut it at Liverpool?"

This is a really interesting question, given how well Aquilani is playing for Juventus. Coach Luigi del Neri had said his loan signing must wait for his chance, but the playmaker has forced his way into the first team thanks to sterling performances. He was the heartbeat of Juve's play against Internazionale, recently, and put in another man-of-the-match display alongside Felipe Melo against Lecce last week.

Somewhat inevitably, the theory that the Premier League was too fast and physical for him has been given added credence by his current form. He may have picked up more injuries playing in England, in the long run, but I'm not sure I agree with the premise that he wasn't a good player at Liverpool. Signing him while injured, and for a $31 million premium, was a mistake -- no argument here.

But once he got that (admittedly brief) run in the starting XI toward the end of last season, Aquilani showed the quality of his link-up play against opposition as varied as Burnley and Atletico Madrid. Liverpool looks short of such midfield creativity, and I doubt he would have been allowed to leave had Rafael Benitez stayed in charge.

Since Rafael van der Vaart seems to roam wherever the ball goes, what type of formation makes the most sense for Spurs while including Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Peter Crouch and Aaron Lennon? I feel like a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 would allow for more freedom in the attacking half, but would leave other strikers (Roman Pavlyuchenko, Jermain Defoe when healthy) on the bench. -- Cason Dwyer, Richmond, Va.

Both of those formations make perfect sense with van der Vaart on board at Tottenham, and though Harry Redknapp has underplayed the last-minute signing, being able to field one striker without leaving him isolated will be a real boost in the course of a long campaign.

You're right to point out that a one-up-top formation will leave the manager with a lot of rotating (and ego-massaging) to do, but none of Spurs' strikers has proved to be so consistent that he's undroppable. Although Defoe and Crouch worked well together for a considerable spell, Tottenham hasn't really settled on a cast-iron forward partnership since Dimitar Berbatov and Robbie Keane linked up.

Even so, for so-called easier games, I doubt Redknapp would have a problem with starting van der Vaart nominally out wide and letting him roam behind two strikers -- he's already shown how much running he's prepared to put in, whether it's driving the attack or tracking back. It reduces Spurs' width on one side, but since Redknapp could field two attacking fullbacks in Bale and Alan Hutton, it wouldn't be the end of the world.

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