Sir Alex Ferguson has admitted that he must "define" Wayne Rooney's role at Manchester United this season after conceding that he has allowed the 22-year-old to sacrifice his natural abilities for the sake of the team for too long.
Although the England forward registered 20 goals for club and country last season, his United performances were overshadowed by the efforts of Cristiano Ronaldo and, on the international stage, Fabio Capello's decision to deploy Rooney as a lone striker appeared to nullify his attacking threat.
As United closed in on a Premier League and Champions League double last season, Rooney was often forced to accept an unfamiliar role on the wing as Ferguson and his former assistant, Carlos Queiroz, operated a system with Rooney, Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez rotating between three forward positions.
While Rooney dutifully adhered to Ferguson and Queiroz's instructions, the form that prompted the former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson, after the 2006 World Cup, to describe him as the "golden boy of English football" was rarely seen.
With continuing uncertainty surrounding the United future of Ronaldo, Ferguson admitted here yesterday that the time has come for Rooney to be allowed to develop his career in his favoured central striking role.
The United manager said: "We have to define Wayne's role a bit better for us, because I think he sacrificed himself for the team last season. I think I have to take a bit of responsibility for it.
"He has sacrificed himself and never complained about it, which says a lot for the lad. It's fair to say that, if the player moans, you would have to review the situation because it does happen that some players know what their best position is and they don't want to challenge themselves in another position.
"But Rooney is prepared to challenge himself in another position and he would play centre-half if I asked him to."
While Ferguson continues to be a vocal supporter of Rooney, the former Everton player has been under scrutiny recently, with Pele suggesting that he needs to learn the art of punishing opponents with his talent, rather than his notoriously brittle temper, if he is to rediscover the form that he produced for England at Euro 2004.
Rooney was substituted by Ferguson during United's friendly against Kaizer Chiefs in Cape Town on Saturday after several confrontations with opposing defenders, and his on-field frustrations, heightened by his lack of a defined position, remain a concern.
However, with Ferguson still in the hunt for the Tottenham forward Dimitar Berbatov, he admits that Rooney would benefit from the presence of a more experienced strike partner alongside him at Old Trafford.
Ferguson said: "I think Wayne's best position is through the middle. Either the front role or tucking in just behind, but he can play either role very well.
"He is aggressive, has two feet, good pace and he has the courage to go in the box. There's no reason why he can't get a good supply of goals, but he may have benefited by having someone with more experience with him. That always happens with young strikers.
"At 22, he was never going to be the finished article," Ferguson added. "When you sign players at 18, it's for the long view and we signed him for his potential. That is why we paid £26m for him. In a few years' time, we will be saying that was really brilliant business.
"He will still score goals. He scored a couple against Aston Villa last season after not scoring for seven or eight games and I thought that would have catapulted him into a good run. But we kept using him in different positions and we need to define his role better."
Although he is determined to add to his squad before the new Premier League season starts next month, Ferguson says that his current team can still only get better. "There are some areas where we expect improvement. We signed Anderson and Rooney and Tevez and Nani, and these players will improve. That gives you confidence.
"Other players will play better, like Michael Carrick, who now has more authority in his game and, hopefully, Owen Hargreaves can get rid of his tendinitis. He had his final injection on Sunday so, hopefully, he can overcome that type of injury and get back to playing for us all the time, because he is an important player."
* Lee Martin's first-half goal sealed a 1-0 victory for United, without several key players, against Orlando Pirates in Durban last night. The 21-year-old midfielder, linked with a move to Sheffield United, scored on 23 minutes in the Absa Stadium.
Transfer moves will leave no choice but back to the wing
Playing Wayne Rooney as a central striker: it is a nice idea in theory, but the man himself is entitled to wonder how the hell Sir Alex Ferguson will pull it off in practice.
Manchester United's biggest signing this summer will be Dimitar Berbatov; failing that, it will be Roque Santa Cruz – and Ferguson will not buy either of them to play on the left wing. His team became Premier League champions – and champions of Europe – last season playing a variation on 4-1-4-1 and 4-5-1, and abandoning that winning formula to appease Rooney would be absurd, especially when Ferguson is pursuing Berbatov specifically to play as the lone striker.
It is very difficult to imagine any United formation other than one with either Berbatov or Carlos Tevez as the central striker for quite some time to come, whatever Ferguson may say. He might well give Rooney more opportunities to play as an out-and-out striker when circumstances allow, but in the big matches it will be back to the wing for Rooney.
It might well be the best place for him. Rooney has many talents but a lethal record in front of goal is not one of them. With England he has a poor goalscoring record, just 14 from 43 caps.
Yes, centre-forward is where Rooney has said he wants to play and Ferguson may apologise for having "sacrificed" him on the wing. However, in an age where the five-man midfield is king, cutting in from the wing is probably where he belongs.
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