The wonder of Wayne: what makes Rooney world-class

The United striker has seized centre stage following Cristiano Ronaldo's exit, writes Sam Wallace. Now trophy hopes for club and country rest on his shoulders
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He was described by Martin O'Neill as "one of the best players in the world, absolutely at the top of his form" on Wednesday. In the Manchester Mercantile Court this week, his agent and his former management company have argued over £4.3m-worth of commission on the player's commercial deals. As Wayne Rooney becomes the irresistible choice for Player of the Year, putting a value on him is no simple matter.

Against Aston Villa on Wednesday he was again the outstanding player for Manchester United, who played for an hour with 10 men. This season has been different to any of his previous five seasons with United.

The goals

Already he has scored 21 Premier League goals in 25 starts, five in excess of his previous best league record when he scored 16 in his entire second season at United. If anything differentiates Rooney present from Rooney past it has been his composure in front of goal. He has been saved by manager Sir Alex Ferguson for the League this year, starting only two of United's six Champions League group games.

His goalscoring run picked up pace with England in the last World Cup qualification campaign, in which he ended up with nine goals in the nine qualifiers he played. He has scored just once in his last five games for England but the difference with United and national team is obvious. He is much more effective in front of goal.

In the past Rooney has not always looked like the archetypal goalscorer. When he was substituted by Fabio Capello against the Czech Republic in August 2008 he had only 14 goals in 44 caps. Since then, as England have been transformed, so has Rooney. His record now stands at a far more respectable 25 goals in 57 caps.

The discipline

Contrary to the usual assumptions about Rooney, he has never had a dreadful disciplinary record – it just looks that way because of the manner in which he charges about the pitch. His last red card for United was against Fulham in March of last year and this season he has picked up just five bookings in the League – unsurprisingly three of them in games that United were on their way to losing.

On Wednesday we were treated to the rare sight of the referee Peter Walton helping Rooney to fasten on the captain's armband that he inherited from Ryan Giggs when the latter went off injured. Rooney's general attitude of disbelief mixed with contempt towards referees has softened. He is more likely to talk to them now.

In the past Rooney has become increasingly tetchy when asked to play alone up front, the most famous example being the World Cup quarter-final against Portugal in 2006 when he was sent off. These days, when asked to lead the line on his own, he does not react as badly to the treatment meted out by defenders.

The commitment

Only Patrice Evra has played more minutes (2,384) than Rooney (2,216) for United in the League this season. He has featured in every game apart from the home encounter with Bolton Wanderers in October. As ever it is the big injuries – breaks and ruptures – that United and England will fear because Rooney does not seem to be plagued by the everyday aches and pains of most footballers.

When it came to the other side of Rooney's commitment on Wednesday, O'Neill picked out the determination with which Rooney chased Ashley Young down the right flank with seven minutes left of the match. Some managers would have been concerned at the ferocity of Rooney's charge after one of their best players. O'Neill regarded it as something his Villa players could learn from.

In the bad old days, Rooney might have been tempted to do something daft as he sprinted back into the left-back position. These days he seems to be able to keep a lid on it. And commitment comes in many guises: he is not playing hardball over his new contract and suggesting that he might go elsewhere. He has said repeatedly that he wants to stay at United.

His position

The 4-3-3 formation that both United and Arsenal have adopted is part of a new trend to try to imitate Barcelona's formidable Champions League-winning system. At Arsenal, it relies upon the quality of the wingers to make it work because with Robin van Persie injured they do not have a recognised centre- forward. At United, it is Rooney who holds it altogether.

After the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney has become the focal point for every United attack. It means that he is the player pushed furthest up the pitch, which militates against his tendency to drift deeper and deeper in search of possession. When United counter-attack, as they did against Arsenal at the end of last month, he is able to run at defences that are undermanned and exposed.

It has meant that Dimitar Berbatov has become more of an understudy to Rooney than a foil; Michael Owen has slipped off the radar and Danny Welbeck has been sent off to Preston on loan. This is not an easy system to play but Ferguson seems to be convinced that he only needs one player above all in order to make it work.

His status

It goes without saying that Old Trafford is a very different place to when Rooney first arrived. Back in the summer of 2004 there were no Glazers in charge, Arsenal were the best team in the country by some distance and there was only one Champions League trophy to the club's name.

More importantly, so many big names have left since then, including Ronaldo, Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Alan Smith, Diego Forlan and Gabriel Heinze. Rooney is already in his sixth season at the club, one more than Van Nistelrooy played for United. By the end of this season he will have been at United as long as Ronaldo was.

But there are other reasons why Rooney tends to get the armband when Giggs or Rio Ferdinand is substituted. This team is facing another epoch of rapid redevelopment. Not only will the likes of Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville have little time left, but older stalwarts Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic seem to be approaching the time when they start to wind down or, in the latter's case, angling to leave.

Rooney is already a United veteran at 24, but that has also coincided with arguably the most impressive period of his career to date.

Just how good is Rooney? The great and the good have their say

"For some time it has been possible to say certain things about Rooney with absolute conviction. One is that he is the most talented English player of his generation. Another is that he has the potential to be the best in the world. Recently he has been simply magnificent. He has accepted his responsibilities and confirmed his quality. He is a pure football; his love of the game shines through every performance."

Sir Bobby Charlton

"Sometimes you see a young player and you know right away he is exceptional. Rooney was such a player right from the start. When I first saw him I thought, 'Here is a lad who can do anything in the game.' He has the thing all the truly great players have. He knows the game, and where to be on the field, quite instinctively. He can be up there with all the great ones, people like Pele."

John Giles

"It's a no-brainer. Rooney is a great player and can prove himself one of the greatest we have ever seen. When Cristiano Ronaldo was at United, Rooney was often asked to play in positions he might not have liked so much. Now he is coming into his own. Best of his English generation? It's another no-brainer."

Paddy Crerand

"In my book Wayne is up there with [Lionel] Messi and Ronaldo. He has amazing talent."

Ryan Giggs

"As good as Pele? There will only ever be one Pele regardless of colour. Wayne Rooney is as exciting to watch now as he was in Euro 2004 when he burst onto the scene. If we conducted a poll with Europe's top players, I'm confident they would regard him as world-class. So do I."

Mark Bright, Pundit on the BBC's Football Focus