United's Rooney has become the quintessential English No. 10
Do statistics reflect truths hidden to everyday observation, or are they the great betrayers? To most, Wayne Rooney last season reached new peaks. He won the players' and the football writers' player of the year awards and scored 26 Premier League goals, 10 more than his next best season (2005-06). Then he was injured in the Champions League quarterfinal against Bayern Munich in March, United went out of that competition, its title challenge faltered and Rooney's form was destroyed for the best part of a year.
This season that same narrative has Rooney desperately struggling, threatening to leave Old Trafford, looking a passenger to the extent there were serious questions as to whether, at 25, his best soccer might be behind him, before finally the muse favored him again. In the last month of so he has looked once again one of the most devastating footballers on the planet.
So, last season excellent until March, then nothing; this season dreadful till March, then excellent. Except that last season, Rooney scored 26 Premier League goals and assisted three, at a rate of one direct contribution to a goal every 93 minutes and 54 seconds. This season he has scored 11 and assisted 11 at a rate of a direct contribution every 100 minutes and 55 seconds. That hardly speaks of a great discrepancy between the two years; in fact two weeks ago, Rooney was making direct contributions to goals more frequently this season than he was last. United, meanwhile, is Premier League champion this season, and will play the Champions League final a week come Saturday. As Rooney took the individual awards last season, his club lifted only the Carling Cup.
What to conclude from that? Two things, probably. Firstly, soccer is a game that eludes simple statistical analysis. To count merely goals or assists or any other measure is an incomplete guide; it is not a sport of discrete, readily analyzable passages. And secondly, that most people in soccer -- pundits, fans and players -- get carried away by goals. Rooney's emergence as an out-and-out center forward last season was variously portrayed as the moment at which he matured as a player, as him stepping out of Cristiano Ronaldo's shadow.
Actually the opposite was true: Rooney's strength as a player is that he was prepared to remain in Ronaldo's shadow; he and Carlos Tevez are complex, occasionally difficult characters, but they did a huge amount of selfless work that contributed to Ronaldo's remarkable goal scoring record in his last couple of seasons at Old Trafford -- work Ronaldo is perhaps only just beginning to appreciate. Rooney is that rarest of beasts: an English number 10, somebody who naturally operates on the mezzanine between midfield and attack, somebody with the imagination and confidence to control the game from that position. Yet people wanted goals.
Last season, Dimitar Berbatov's loss of form and the sales of Tevez and Ronaldo meant Rooney needed to play as a lone striker. He did it superbly well -- surprisingly so, given his frustration in the role when injuries compelled him to play it for England at the 2006 World Cup and led him to stamp on Ricardo Carvalho before being sent off -- his heading in particular improving. As such, the season enhanced his range of skills and has probably made him a better player. Even last year, though, the thought remained that his hold-up play, while perfectly adequate, wasn't up to the standards of the rest of his game.
At the World Cup, Rooney was the victim of a perfect storm of circumstance. His fitness was questionable. Tabloid revelations about his private life were imminent, and the assumption is that he knew about them. He was being asked to play in different positions for club and country and seemed unable to reconcile the two, playing too high and too close to Emile Heskey in the opener against the USA, and then chasing the ball far too deep as he tried to make amends thereafter.
At the start of the season, he was still a distracted, discontented figure. Perhaps even he was confused by what he was supposed to be doing, seduced by the praise with which he'd been showered last season and reluctant to surrender the glory of goal scoring to Berbatov and Javier Hernandez. That frustration, as paparazzi dogged him even more closely, desperate for further indiscretions, led in October to Rooney's transfer request. There was talk of a rift with Sir Alex Ferguson, while Rooney, in what was surely an indication he was feeling the pressure of being the most recognizable player at the club, spoke bitterly of the lack of quality of recent signings (hopefully every goal Hernandez scores makes him feel more embarrassed by that comment).
And that was when Ferguson showed his brilliance as a manager. He gave an emotional press conference, explaining the club had offered Rooney a new contract and insisting he was "dumbfounded" that he'd turned it down. He managed simultaneously to suggest Rooney had betrayed him for greed, while making clear how much he was still wanted by the club. A few days later, Rooney signed a new deal. Did Rooney win, his brinkmanship forcing the club to offer a more lucrative contract than it intended? Did Ferguson win because he persuaded the player to stay? In the end, it doesn't matter: a 19th league title heals all wounds. Ferguson got what he wanted and if it cost a little more than he'd have liked well, frankly, the Glazer family, which owns the club, owed him something having slashed transfer spending.
Even after that it took about three months for Ferguson to coax Rooney back to form. 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.
This has been the most difficult season of Rooney's career so far, but he has come through it. Win one more game, against Barcelona at Wembley, and it may also be the most satisfying.