Kevin Garside: Is the old Wayne Rooney back? No, this is a new model
Manchester United striker's form is one sign manager David Moyes is putting his own template on side
Wayne Rooney turned 28 on Thursday. His manager, David Moyes, claimed not to know of the anniversary of his most important player. No slight intended, none taken. In this new atmosphere of entente cordiale in all matters Rooney at Old Trafford, there is only joy.
In a difficult period for Moyes since taking over at Manchester United from Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the key elements he got absolutely right was the management of Rooney, who in the last days of the old regime had become a demotivated malcontent.
After observing the scintillating performance against Real Sociedad, the latest in a series of impressive displays this season, Moyes ventured that the Rooney we are seeing is not the old one returning to his best, but a new, enhanced version capable of going beyond previous projections.
On the pitch there is genuine zip about his movement, a crisp quality to his touch and play, a new vigour that oozes threat. Off it there is a growing maturity born of contentment. He is available for interview, welcomes any question and delivers answers that demonstrate a degree of confidence and professional control hitherto unseen.
"Is he 28?" asked Moyes. "I thought he was a lot older than that. I was going to say he was back to the old Wayne Rooney but it might be better to say he is the new Wayne Rooney. He came back [pre-season] in great condition, trained really hard. I really couldn't explain [to you] how hard he has worked. He has been incredible. Hopefully, in the end, Manchester United will benefit and England might as well."
If the win against Sociedad revealed a new Rooney, it also introduced to Moyes another player who might yet prove hugely influential. Shinji Kagawa started only his fourth game for Moyes and played the full 90 minutes. He was dangerous down the left, linking beautifully with Rooney and Ryan Giggs, and inventive when he moved inside to his favoured No.10 position.
"Everyone tells me about Shinji's ability and what he's got, but tonight was the first time I have really seen him," Moyes said. "I thought he played really well. When we put him in the No. 10 role, I thought he was very good."
This is truly a eureka moment. The shortfall in midfield creativity long identified at Old Trafford was always Kagawa's to fill, yet Moyes had been a reluctant traveller in this regard. Kagawa was not helped by the wide berth he occupied under Ferguson, a move ridiculed by his former manager at Dortmund, Jürgen Klopp, who claimed United had turned the two-time Bundesliga Player of the Year into a bit-part player.
He demonstrated with the hat-trick against Norwich at Old Trafford last season how great a range he offers in the traditional inside-forward role. If there is to be an accommodation when Robin van Persie returns, which is likely against Stoke tomorrow, then it is fair to assume Kagawa will be part of it, rather than a distrusted presence shunted into the margins.
By increments Moyes is edging away from the Ferguson template. Yes, these are players that were managed by Ferguson but the arrangement is shifting. At the back Moyes paired Phil Jones with Jonny Evans in the centre-back position he was bought from Blackburn Rovers to fill but so rarely has. And what a player he looked, a ball-playing defender, committed in the tackle.
Sociedad might have been modest fodder but it is not so much about the opposition for Moyes. It is more about how he sees United, how he pieces together the individual parts to make it his team. Wednesday was a step in the right direction.
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