From a purely attacking point of view, Rooney has proportionally been directly involved in as many goals this season as he was last: last season he played 2,723 minutes in the Premier League, scoring 26 goals and claiming three assists. This season, in 1,950 minutes, he has scored 10 and made 11 assists. To put it another way, he scored or assisted a goal every 93 minutes and 54 seconds last season and every 92 minutes and 52 seconds this. As if to illustrate these statistics, Rooney both assisted Giggs for the first goal tonight and then managed to subtly interchange with Hernandez, turning receiver rather than provider and drill a strong finish past the magnificent Neuer for the second.
Personally I’ve long been a champion of the LRBR (Let Rooney be Rooney) movement, a campaign designed to persuade Sir Alex to play the mercurial Mersey-born maestro in his most natural role.. off the front man as a trequartista, an archetypal number 10 – unrestrained by tactical orders, allowed to stamp his authority on any given match and take the game to the opposition. In fact the manager who first had the foresight to re-deploy Rooney in his favoured role was Fabio Capello, who unconvinced by Rooney’s efforts as a lone front man decided that in order to get the best out of the Englishman, it was best to partner him up with a strong physical number 9 capable of stretching the opposition and holding the ball up, in order to feed Wayne with plenty of possession.
The downside to this plan was the fact that the No.9 in this case happened to be the much maligned Emile Heskey, who instead of drawing the attention of opponents, through his mediocrity in front of goal and outside the box, piled even more pressure on Rooney.. it left England’s talisman having to create and be the sole source of goals. A difficult task at the best of times and not helped by having the hopes of an over-expectant and hapless nation on his shoulders.
As for his role at United, during 08/09 he was undoubtedly magnificent up front alone in the big games and was a constant goal threat and nuisance for back lines. His injury against Bayern proved telling as to just how much of a pivotal figure he’d become even in an unaccustomed role. So on a purely statistical basis, you’d be hard pressed to argue that Rooney could only become a ‘great’ player by playing in his favoured position.
However what was arguable was that whilst he had become very effective in that role and was a consistent match winner, it wasn’t particularly pretty and it felt as if we were restricting him, turning him into a machine.. rather than letting him strut his stuff and display his god given talents to their fullest. Well whilst it was all well and good for Sir Alex to come to this conclusion, the question remained as to whether or not we had a side capable of fielding Rooney in a No. 10 position, there’s no point of catering for a players desires if it is to the detriment of the team and at the end of the day.. United these days especially, are in the results business.
At first Berbatov and Rooney formed a pretty competent partnership up front, capable of wreaking havoc against most Premiership defences, cleverly interchanging and switching positions with the Bulgarian racking up the majority of the goals and Wayne tallying up the assists. Without doing much wrong however, it just seemed to be superseded by the burgeoning partnership of Rooney & Hernandez.. sometimes things just click so well, you just tag along for the ride and let nature take its course.. in many ways this is exactly what Sir Alex has proceeded to do. He has an astute sense of backing the right horse (no pun intended) at the right time, and more importantly.. at his best as a manager, he is ruthless in doing so. Sentiment simply doesn’t come into it and in this particular situation it has been poor Dimitar Berbatov that has born the brunt of Sir Alex’s predatory instincts.
So what is it about these two that makes them mesh so well to the extent that the leading scorer in the Premiership has been left trailing in their wake… well they’re a dangerous concoction of pace/intelligent movement/boundless stamina/lethal finishing/vision/skill/defending from the front/aerial ability/great first touch… in fact reading this all back makes you realise just how lucky us United fans are to possess such a potent striking force seemingly from nowhere. The only weakness this strike-force possesses is that in terms of hold-up play, it perhaps isn’t the best.. neither Rooney nor Hernandez are the best players with their back to goal and having to bring down a long ball, but the style United are employing at the moment negates that weakness at the moment, so they’re looking pretty unstoppable at the moment.
2. Giggs & Carrick
United had 67% of possession to Schalke’s 33%, 754 passes compared to Schalke’s 386, Carrick managed 112 passes tonight, 98 being successful.
Put simply, Carrick’s best performances this season have been when he has been partnered with either Anderson or Ryan Giggs in a 4-4-2. In a little spell midway through the season, we were playing some glorious football, a period which included a 7-1 demolition of Blackburn, the manner of which took the breath away. It was a reminder of what United could do with the right personnel and a reminder of how good Carrick can be going forwards as well as producing his customary defensive brilliance. The main factor behind why he was unable to maintain that form was both the loss of Park to the Asian Cup leaving only Nani as our remaining wide man of pace & quality and the loss of Anderson to injury, thus robbing him of a fluid attack minded partner who can take over the creative responsibilities whilst always providing him with an easy passing option under pressure.
Scholes used to be Carrick’s partner of choice, but the ageing legs of the Ginger Maestro and his inability to carry the ball under pressure for sustained periods these days means that under heavy pressure, the midfield duo of Scholes & Carrick is prone to collapse and can be overwhelmed to quite devastating effect. As we saw against City, until Anderson came on.. we were unable to change the momentum once it went against us and Carrick looked half the player he can be.
So with Anderson prone to injury and Scholes not really up to the task in the heavyweight encounters, it was the renaissance man himself Ryan Giggs who has proved the catalyst for getting the best out of a malfunctioning United midfield and a besieged Michael Carrick. His ability to demand the ball in tight situations and wriggle out of them, to carry the ball forward/ eat up yards, his voracious appetite to get back – perform his fair share of defensive duties and last but not least nip in with goals and creative passes has taken a heck of alot of pressure off Carrick’s back and allowed to him to return to a much simpler performance template.. that of winning the ball and distributing it efficiently to more attack-minded players within the United set up. Whilst Giggs has had an undoubted impact, credit must also be given to the returning Park & Valencia and the work of Hernandez… all seek to stretch the pitch and provide the space for which Carrick is most grateful, it allows him to carry the ball without pressure and not have his clumsy footwork exposed, whether this can be possible against the likes of Barcelona remains to be seen.. but if it does, expect Carrick to once again rack up a huge number of successful passes.