Kevin Garside: Alex Ferguson desperately needs to roll out Wayne Rooney of old – if he still exists
He did not want for effort, but the Manchester United striker is utterly disconnected from his mojo
Wayne Rooney is the only English striker to have made the shortlist of 15 frontmen for the Fifa/FifPro World XI. Rooney's selection reflects his standing as England's most important player, a reputation that lags behind the reality of a season that refuses to ignite for him.
Where is the somersaulting bulldozer who won the derby for Manchester United with that bicycle-kick two seasons ago? What happened to the butane content in boots that struck 27 times in the Premier League last season? Rooney's aimless plod through the dead Champions League rubber with Cluj on Wednesday was painful to observe. His selection on the right of United's rough diamond says much about his form. Even with Robin van Persie rested, Sir Alex Ferguson gave striking priority to the underused Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez.
Rooney was left to run himself into some sort of shape and form in an unfamiliar role. He did not want for effort, he never does, but he is utterly disconnected from his mojo. Ferguson is clutching at mystic straws, borrowing from football's book of homespun philosophy with the view that Rooney's troubles are somehow rooted in his barrel-like physique and that he needs cranking into life like an old Ford.
The fitness profiling of the modern player is so deep as to blow that kind of analysis out of the telemetry machine. Besides, Ferenc Puskas carted a similar silhouette around Budapest for a decade before lighting up Real Madrid and was the pivot of the great Magyar ensemble that took England apart at Wembley in 1953 and might have won the World Cup a year later had injury not struck down the galloping major.
Rooney is 27 years old. It could be that a decade in the vanguard of the English game has slowed him, that what we are witnessing is a painful downgrading of a talent that promised the earth when he exploded out of the Everton dugout as a 16-year-old. He has not failed. By any measure Rooney has enjoyed a rich return. But nothing lasts for ever.
George Best played his last game for United at the same age. Ronaldinho arguably peaked around the 2006 World Cup at the age of 26. His last year at Barcelona was ravaged by injury and he was a Milan player at 28, nowhere near the force he was at the Nou Camp.
It may be that Ferguson's intuitive grasp of Rooney's condition is right, that he will confound pessimistic analysis and flower anew, maybe on Sunday at the home of Manchester City. Heaven knows, United need him at his best. Van Persie has done a magnificent job of papering over the cracks of an odd season that sees United take a three-point Premier League lead to the Etihad.
A year ago Ferguson decided on the Alamo option and was deservedly undone by a Vincent Kompany header. United couldn't keep out Mother Teresa at the far post this season, rendering unlikely any defensive ploy on Sunday. Rooney's relationship with Van Persie has shown promise, benefiting from the Englishman's ability to pick a pass occasionally, despite his wider failings.
Rooney tops the assists stats at United this season and his apologists point to a goal ratio of four from nine Premier League starts, which falls broadly into line with a career record of 203 in 458 club matches for Everton and United. But that is hardly the point when he cannot get into a game against a team as underwhelming as Cluj. His social media defenders made much of the position he was asked to play. That is a defence available only to the ordinary player. Rooney is supposed to be exceptional, an English beacon in a dark age.
He was certainly that during a first coming that peaked in 2010 with 34 goals in 42 starts post-Cristiano Ronaldo. United need to find a solution. Shinji Kagawa, signed to bridge the deficit in imaginative probing at the heart of United's midfield, will not make the Etihad date. Tom Cleverley, an effervescent if not commanding presence in midfield, limped out of the Cluj anticlimax. Fergie needs his barrel boy back to his best. He needs to roll out the old Rooney, if that player still exists.
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