The lack of goals from Wayne Rooney this season is akin to the royal wedding. A phenomenal amount of media coverage given to a truly uninteresting story. But never let it be said that FTW has written about innovative or original tales when there is generic tat to be peddled. One solitary goal from open play has been his haul reward after a torrid World Cup and early season. But the supposed loss of form is not precisely what it seems. Last season Rooney stepped up to replace Ronaldo and netted 34 times. But it looks increasingly like 2009/2010 was the exception rather than the rule due to another change in position.
Before the departure of Ronaldo, Rooney was often sacrificed for the team by being pushed out wide or having to drop deeper. There is no denying that the system was successful (two league titles, two consecutive Champions League finals) but it is also undeniable that Rooney was not fully utilised with Ronaldo in the side. So when the Portuguese forward left, Rooney was liberated and filled his boots until Bayern intervened and crocked him. However now Rooney seems to be reverting to his old self:
The chalkboard above shows Rooney is once again drifting wider and dropping deeper. He is spreading the play with a broader range of passing that he was not attempting last year. This change in position could partly be explained by a lack of confidence after the revelations about his personal life and the damage to his relationship with the fans after his transfer request. The energy and determination has returned but the effortlessness in front of goal that comes with confidence has not. No man is immune to pressure especially when he isn’t receiving full support either at home or at work.
Secondly the injury to Valencia was a big blow to Rooney. The interplay between the two was a critical component in Rooney’s 34 goals. When Valencia was stretchered off against Rangers United were not only deprived of a first choice winger but their aerial threat was also diminished. While Nani has been in excellent form this season he is a distinctly different sort of forward to Valencia cannot offer the pin-point crossing that is characteristic of the Ecuadorian.
But the crucial factor is the form of Berbatov. The Bulgarian leads the scoring charts with 17 and it isn’t even February. With Berbatov leading the line Rooney has the flexibility to drop deep and dictate where he needs to as opposed to being a poacher. Although Rooney has missed a big chunk of the season, Rooney still has nine assists and has adopted a role closer to Ozil or Sneijder than Drogba. He won’t get 20 goals this season but alongside Nani he is the indispensible creative force in this United side.
Given the rise in stature of Berbatov at Old Trafford, how will Ferguson line up his sides for the big games this season? Controversially Berbatov was dropped at home to Arsenal but then he did play away to Spurs which is arguably as big a game. If Berbatov were to play in the bigger matches then it would suggest that Ferguson is shifting from the flexible 4-3-3/4-5-1 where the two wide players react depending on whether United have the ball at the time. With Berbatov leading the line and Rooney dropping off the system becomes much closer to the 4-2-3-1 that Holland and Germany deployed at the World Cup with three interchanging attacking midfielders behind a Klose or van Persie.
Until Europe restarts it is all speculation but dropping Berbatov against Marseille would be far bolder than it would have been last year. The Bulgarian is almost certain to get more than 20 this season, barring injury or a regression in form. He leads the line in a very different way to Rooney and would necessitate the change in style outlined above if Rooney is to be accommodated but the pair are increasingly linking up well and it might be the only way to fit both into the side and still retain the shape that Ferguson values so highly in European games.