February 25, 2014

Wayne Rooney, center, scored in his first game after pledging his future to Manchester United with a new long-term contract.
David Klein/Sportimage/Cal Sport Media

A year ago, Manchester United faced Real Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League. It drew 1-1 in Spain and then, for the return at Old Trafford, Wayne Rooney was dropped. It was then that the rumors that Sir Alex Ferguson might be looking to get rid of him first began to take real shape.

Twelve months on and United goes to Olympiakos for the last 16 of the Champions League with Rooney having just agreed to a hugely lucrative contract extension to 2019. The exact details remain unclear and although a headline figure of £300,000 a week has been reported - to begin when his existing deal expires in June 2015 - it seems his basic salary hasn't changed much from the £240,000 he was on, with the remainder made up in bonuses and image rights.

Still, it is a huge sum for a player who will be 33 by the time the new deal runs out, particularly one who would probably have been sold had Ferguson not retired. Rooney remains a fine player. He may not quite have developed as England fans hoped he might during that heady week in the summer of 2004 when it seemed he might almost single-handedly bring home the Euros -- it didn't seem too ridiculous for Sven-Goran Eriksson to compare his impact on the tournament to that of Pele at the World Cup in 1958. He may have been left behind by his former teammate Cristiano Ronaldo, but he is still a top-class performer.

In fact, perversely, it may be that he remains generally slightly underrated because his skill set is so unusual: he is a forward who combines power and technical ability, who is adept both at finding little pockets of space and at larruping in shots - as he did at Crystal Palace on Saturday, when he smashed an awkwardly bouncing ball first-time past Julian Speroni; but he also does his share of defensive work, hunting down the opposition in possession with an urgency and a muscularity few other No. 10s can match.

Figures from whoscored.com show that in 20 Premier League starts this season, Rooney has recorded 10 goals and nine assists and also averages two key passes, one tackle and one interception per game. He has been United's most effective player this season.

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And yet there remains a niggle. In part the issue is tactical. Rooney used to be the least egotistical of players, somebody quite prepared to play wide and track a fullback if the occasion demanded it. Last season he was open about his frustration at being asked to play in a deeper role. This has been a growing trend: one of the reasons for England's dismal World Cup in 2010 was that Rooney, having been deployed between Emile Heskey and the midfield in a highly successful qualifying campaign, got used to playing as an out-and-out center forward for United in the 2009-10 season, so that by the time the tournament came around, he was unable or unwilling to adapt.

These days, Rooney is very much a second striker operating just behind Robin van Persie, and if he has insisted on playing there that limits David Moyes's tactical options. Shinji Kagawa, who would naturally operate centrally at the front of the midfield, has struggled to find a role since joining in the summer of 2012, and it's mystifying that United would spend £38 million to sign Juan Mata if he is also to be deployed wide: he can do that, but he is surely better playing through the middle.

Perhaps things will become clearer after the summer, when major investment in new players is expected - Rooney could become the main center forward if it's decided that, at 30, Robin van Persie's history of injury problems makes him expendable - but at the moment, United seems to be accumulating at great expense a lot of players at their best playing in the same part of the field.

But the other issue is what this reveals about United and its planning. Understandably, the club has portrayed the contract deal as a major positive, but it also hints at the club's desperation. It had to keep Rooney: he is by some way its most iconic player, recognizable across the world and with a long association with the club. Had he left, it would have had commercial ramifications but it might also have been seen as a signal to potential signings that he had lost faith, that he didn't believe in the rebuilding project.

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United is unlikely now to qualify for next season's Champions League: Rooney committing long-term is a way of mitigating that embarrassment, of suggesting it's a blip rather than a longer-term downturn. And the club had to keep Rooney because of where he might have gone.

Perhaps Paris St-Germain was interested, but no other foreign club seemed likely to sign Rooney. That meant if he had gone, he would probably have ended up at Chelsea, which made two bids for him last summer and whose manager, Jose Mourinho, spoke repeatedly about how much he wanted to sign him.

The thought of losing Rooney might have been tolerable, but the possibility of him helping Chelsea to trophies was not, and would have been a huge embarrassment to the new regime at United. The temptation to assume Mourinho is always at work on some Machiavellian plot can be overwhelming and misleading, but you do wonder how disappointed he is to know his actions in August have forced United to commit £85 million to a player who turns 30 next year and, moreover, one who has already been playing regular professional football for 12 seasons.

Rooney and his advisors can hardly be blamed for taking advantage of United's weakness - that is the nature of modern sport. It may yet turn out to be a good deal for United, if Rooney can prolong his period at the top. But if United was not sitting sixth in the league, it might not have been quite so willing to meet Rooney's demands.

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