It is almost 13 years since we were told to “remember the name”, an instruction that now seems superfluous to the point of absurdity. Wayne Rooney turns 30 in October. The fresh-faced (okay, never really fresh-faced), nimble (okay, nimble seems a little far-fetched too), young (definitely young) boy is long, long gone. There is nothing quite like a wonderkid turning into football senior citizen to make the grey hairs on your own head easier to spot.
There are now just four outfield players in Manchester United’s squad older than Rooney: Ashley Young, Michael Carrick, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Antonio Valencia. Each of those survivors from last season have found their importance in the squad diminished over the course of this summer by United’s transfer business: Young by Memphis Depay, Carrick by Morgan Schneiderlin and Valencia by Mateo Darmian. Schweinsteiger’s arrival has been understandably heralded, but he will be forced to compete with Carrick, Schneiderlin, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini for a starting spot. From central midfield drought to a comparative flood.
For Rooney however, the opposite has occurred. Rather than being provided with competition for his place, Louis van Gaal has instead increased the striker’s importance and standing at Old Trafford. Last year the Dutchman made Rooney captain; this summer he has been crowned as United’s leading man.
If the departure of Robin van Persie creates a void, Van Gaal believes that he is not short of options to fill the gap. Javier Hernandez and James Wilson are obvious back-ups, but neither come off the back of successful seasons, even if that judgement may seem brutally unfair on Wilson. Van Gaal has also hinted that Depay and Adnan Januzaj could operate centrally, whilst the rumours linking United to Pedro continue to linger.
Still, the message is clear: Wayne Rooney is the focal point of United’s attack. He is the main man, the big cheese.
“I have listened to you. You have more knowledge than I. Now Rooney is there,” was Van Gaal’s snarky message to journalists. He had promised a striker surprise, which then turned out not to be a surprise. He then made Rooney United’s sole front-line striker, a surprise bigger than the other surprise, which wasn’t a surprise. Keeping up? I’d be surprised.
Rooney is understandably pleased to have been given the opportunity to perform in the role he clearly considers to be his forte. Captaining United last season was a great compliment, but Rooney played the role of Van Gaal’s firefighter more than leader. Modern strikers are used to being farmed out wide, but playing 14 league matches in central midfield is a far more unusual occurrence.
“I have no doubts in myself,” Rooney said. “I have no doubts that I can do it again and I am ready to take on that mantle again and be the one who gets the goals for this team.” As Rooney went on to discuss excitement at the arrival of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger, you could almost hear the relief in his voice. You can understand that selfishness; Rooney is ready to be the master of one trade after a season of being his manager’s jack of all.
Rooney’s confidence too is understandable. He last operated as a main striker in 2011/12, scoring 34 goals in all competitions. Exactly the same occurred when he played in that role in 2009/10 – 34 goals again. These are the only two seasons in which Rooney has managed 20 or more league goals in a campaign.
Van Gaal’s plans also represent a marked shift from United’s norm, in which successful sides were built around strikeforces rather than strikers. Look back to the treble-winning squad of 1998/99 (Cole, Yorke, Sheringham, Solskjaer), the Premier League-winning squad of 2008/09 (Ronaldo, Tevez, Berbatov, Rooney) and even the squad that won the league in Alex Ferguson’s final season (Van Persie, Rooney and a firing Hernandez). All the eggs now seem to be piled into a Rooney-shaped basket.
United must also look to correct a notable anomaly. The two seasons in which Rooney scored 20 or more league goals coincided with his side failing to win the title; the five campaigns around those two seasons all ended in Premier League triumph. It may be a statistical quirk, but when Rooney scores big, United fail to shine.
Van Gaal will be optimistic that should Rooney flourish as a permanent fixture up front, United’s midfield improvements will ensure that they have a strong chance of recapturing their domestic crown. After a summer in which the Dutchman has addressed problems in his midfield and defence (and assume that another defender is to arrive), Rooney represents his only meaningful gamble. His form and United’s are positively correlated, the defining factor in determining in which position between first and fourth United finish.
It is not hyperbolic to suggest that this may also be Rooney’s last peak season as a Manchester United player. His ambition for an MLS move may have been revealed with the distant future in mind, but this should mark Rooney’s 14th consecutive campaign playing 35 or more matches. His first competitive match of the season will be the 662nd of his career – for most strikers, that is approaching the limit. He’s already almost 100 ahead of Van Persie, for example.
Football is increasingly becoming a young man’s game. Of the 30 occasions of a player scoring 15 or more goals in a Premier League season in the last five years, only one of those players was older than Rooney. That was Yaya Toure, who this week talked of playing until he is 40.
“He might be a player who’d retire come 31 or 32, given the amount of football he’s played,” was Paul Scholes’ view on Rooney. “I don’t think Wayne will be able to play centre forward until he’s 34 or 35.” Let me put my neck on the line too: Rooney will not be troubling 40.
Rooney’s past actions decree that he will never be fully trusted by some Manchester United supporters, but his current importance cannot be overplayed. He will never be able to answer the eternal, fatuous debate over his ‘world-class’ ability, but he can provide something far more valuable: The perfect silver lining to his Old Trafford career.
In August 2012, Alex Ferguson asked a 29-year-old striker to win him back the Premier League, thus creating a lasting legacy in the eyes of supporters at Old Trafford. In August 2015, Louis van Gaal will do the same.
Whatever may have gone before, this is Wayne Rooney’s chance to lead Manchester United to a Premier League title, both as captain and, finally, as top goalscorer. “Remember the name” all over again.