By Jonathan Wilson
January 25, 2011

Wayne Rooney didn't score on Saturday. He did help set up three of Manchester United's five goals against Birmingham City and generally looked as though he may at last be approaching his best, but he didn't net himself. So a sub-plot in most of the reviews of the game was the fact that Rooney failed to score, and that he has managed just one goal from open play for his club since March. He is in a "goal-drought," and no matter what he does between now and scoring half a dozen goals, that will always be the first thing that is mentioned about him after games.

The obsession with who scores goals is mystifying. The idea that attackers attack, defenders defend and midfielders do a bit of each was outdated a century ago, and yet it weirdly persists; soccer, as the great Russian Boris Arkadiev was preaching the thirties, is a combination game, devoid of discrete roles. Last season Rooney scored 25 league goals, more than he had scored in the previous two seasons combined. United won only the Carling Cup. In each of the two previous years, United won the league and reached the Champions League final, winning one of them. Yet it was the third season, most seem to think, in which Rooney found his best form. It was common at this time last year to read paeans talking about how he'd emerged from the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo to occupy his true position. Yet that emergence was probably at least in part behind England's poor showing at the World Cup.

In 2007-08, Cristiano Ronaldo scored 31 league goals, and was eulogized as Rooney was last season. To score than many goals is, of course, a startling achievement, but that season United picked up 2.38 point per Premier League game Ronaldo started. When Tevez started it picked up 2.44; when Rooney started it picked up 2.52. That's one measure, and it's fairly crude, but it does at least give an indication that goals aren't everything.

It seems hard to believe now, but last May Rooney lifted both the Footballers' and the Football Writers' Player of the Year awards. By the time he had collected the trophies, though, he had suffered the ankle injury against Bayern Munich that precipitated his downward spiral. His form disintegrated, reaching a nadir in the World Cup. He was probably not fully fit in South Africa and, it now seems likely, he was distracted by the knowledge that tabloid revelations about his private life were imminent.

But there was also a tactical aspect: at United he had begun playing as a lone striker, working defenders and playing with his back to goal, focusing on taking chances rather than creating them. With England, in World Cup qualifying, he had played behind Emile Heskey, looking to link midfield and attack, his natural leftward drift creating a highly effective interchange with Steven Gerrard as he cut in from that flank. World Cup qualifying, though, ended in November; Rooney had seven months operating in a wholly different role before playing another competitive game for his country.

Perhaps because personal pressures were including his mind, he was unable to readjust, and ended up playing too close to Heskey, with the result that a huge gap appeared between attack and midfield, which in turn led Gerrard -- and to an extent Aaron Lennon -- to drift off their flanks to try to plug it, in turn denying England width. All fluency, of course, disappeared, and England -- yet again -- became far too direct. It's much easier, though, to blame the usual scapegoats -- the manager, Heskey and a player's lack of focus/passion/pride -- than to accept that a player scoring hatfuls of goals may not be ideal.

Since the summer, of course, the revelations have played out and Rooney has submitted and withdrawn a transfer request. That remains an odd episode, brought about by the influence of agents, greed and uncertainty over the club's future under the ownership of the Glazer family, but it surely also spoke of a deeply unhappy player, lashing out almost indiscriminately at those around him. Sir Alex Ferguson is a supreme manager of such situations, and his decision to send Rooney to Portland to train alone looks a masterstroke. Persuaded he was still loved by the club, he was able to refocus away from the distractions of Britain, and has returned re-energized and refocused.

There were signs against Tottenham a week gone Sunday that he was back and, while Birmingham was an accommodating opponent on Saturday, it was possible against to see Rooney re-emerging as one of the world's elite. His assist for Dimitar Berbatov's second goal was unspectacular, but still required the sort of awareness and precision of execution of which Rooney looked incapable in South Africa. It was in the build-up to United's third goal, though, that Rooney again looked a special player, showing invention and confidence to backheel a pass to Berbatov, taking the return, and then driving a perfect ball across the box for Ryan Giggs to slam in.

The fourth came from a long clearance from Edwin van der Sar, Rooney killing the ball as it dropped from considerable height, advancing on the left and playing in Giggs for Berbatov to complete his hat-trick. Given the heaviness of his touch in South Africa, that deftness of control was remarkable, indicative of his confidence and relaxed state of mind

Between United's third and fourth goals, though, came a sign that all is still not quite right, as Rooney moved on to a Nani cross and, from no more than three yards, allowed the ball to slide off the side of his head and wide. His reaction wasn't the fury that might have been expected, but a grin. He knew it didn't really matter. He knows his form is returning and, more than that, he knows he doesn't need the easy validation of goals. They will come; far more important is that his touch and vision are back, and that he is linking well with his team-mates. Rooney is playing well again, and alongside that football's crudest statistic simply doesn't matter.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.

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