Louis van Gaal gambled on Wayne Rooney but once over 30 most strikers are on the wane
The last time Manchester United travelled to Wolfsburg they also did so on the back of playing West Ham in the Premier League, although December 2009 was a different time in every sense.
West Ham had just been, well, hammered 4-0 by Sir Alex Ferguson’s team and, in Germany, Michael Owen scored a hat-trick in a 3-1 win – an unlikely hero in an unremarkable fixture which was a classic example of a seasoned Champions League outfit treating the final group game as little more than a glorified reserve outing.
Ferguson handed game-time to the likes of Owen, Anderson, Tomasz Kuszczak, Darron Gibson and even Gabriel Obertan in the Volkswagen Arena, but United nonetheless swatted the then-Bundesliga champions aside with contemptuous ease, despite being forced to play with Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher at centre-half due to a defensive injury crisis.
Three days earlier, United had coasted to victory against West Ham, with four different names on the score sheet, so although they sat two points adrift of Chelsea at the top of the table, it was business as usual and Owen’s Champions League contribution merely enhanced the feelgood factor at Old Trafford.
It is a wholly different mood and scenario, however, with Louis van Gaal’s team preparing for the same back-to-back sequence of West Ham and Wolfsburg in Lower Saxony on Tuesday evening.
The United manager would clearly give anything for one of his players to emulate Owen by scoring a hat-trick to guarantee victory against Dieter Hecking’s team, but as Saturday’s desperate 0-0 stalemate against West Ham showed, there are few prospective heroes in red shirts right now.
Anthony Martial has scored just once in 13 games since hitting four in his first four appearances for the club, while Memphis Depay’s £25m price-tag has done nothing to prevent him being usurped by Jesse Lingard.
Juan Mata repeatedly flatters to deceive, opponents have cottoned on to the Plan B of long balls to Marouane Fellaini, while Wayne Rooney’s ankle injury rules him out of the Wolfsburg game at a time when his absence is actually being celebrated by some United supporters.
The dismal finishing against West Ham, when United managed just one shot on target from over 20 attempts on goal, suggests that the sidelined Rooney is not the blockage in the system that many believe he has become, but the England captain’s loss of form this season does provide another example of the problems Van Gaal has brought upon himself.
Van Gaal sanctioned the summer departures of Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie due to his faith in Rooney – neither player has come remotely close to proving the Dutchman wrong at Chelsea and Fenerbahce respectively – and then allowed Javier Hernandez to leave for Bayer Leverkusen in order to accommodate the signing of Martial.
Hernandez’s 13 goals this season for Leverkusen suggest that the Mexican was prematurely offloaded by Van Gaal, but with Martial and Depay regarded as the emerging talents, supplemented by the 20-year-old James Wilson, a decision had to be made and the Mexican was cut loose.
United’s run of just seven goals in their last 10 games clearly points to a lack of true class in the penalty area, however, and hints at Van Gaal backing the wrong horse in Rooney and placing too much confidence in Depay, Martial and Wilson, who has now been loaned out to Brighton. The kids are not ready and Rooney, in the words of one former team-mate, has “gone” after 14 years and almost 700 career games for United, Everton and England.
Van Gaal is doing his best impression of King Canute with his captain this season – who remains United’s top scorer with seven goals, despite his poor form – but neither player nor manager can escape the reality that there is little more debilitating for a top centre-forward than leaving their twenties behind.
Alan Shearer, the Premier League’s all-time leading scorer, delivered at a rate of 0.70 goals per game during his twenties, but his ratio fell to 0.45 after turning 30, despite retiring from international football at the age of 29 following Euro 2000.
Van Persie (0.53 to 0.46), Andy Cole (0.54 to 0.31), Owen (0.49 to 0.15), Robbie Fowler (0.45 to 0.26), Eric Cantona (0.49 to 0.31) and Teddy Sheringham (0.51 to 0.27) all saw their numbers slide considerably once in their thirties and Rooney is no different, having scored just once since his 30th birthday in October.
Even the very best struggle to deliver in their thirties, so Rooney’s decline this season should be no surprise, regardless of the failings that have always been held against him – the lifestyle issues that prompted David Moyes, as Everton manager, to warn against the late-night takeaways when Rooney was a teenager, the cigarette smoking, being dropped by Ferguson after a Christmas night out with Gibson and Jonny Evans in 2011.
There have also been the injuries – and it will be interesting to see how Sergio Aguero shapes up at 30 following his succession of muscle problems at Manchester City – that have compromised Rooney for United and England at the height of his career.
None of the above will have helped Rooney arrive at this stage of his career in perfect condition, so it is surprising that Van Gaal was prepared to go into this campaign with his team’s fate resting so heavily on the striker’s goals.
Van Gaal has let Rooney down by failing to provide him with the necessary support and competition up front and the price for that could be paid in Wolfsburg.
Had United recruited properly in the summer and secured a world-class striker at the peak of his powers, they would surely not be travelling to Germany with their Champions League participation under threat. Rooney would have been energised, Martial and Depay less burdened by expectancy and the negativity of all those 0-0 draws perhaps avoided by a forward who knows where the goal is.
United would have been transformed with a Robert Lewandowski or a Harry Kane in their ranks, but instead they backed a fading force who will not even be in Wolfsburg when it truly matters tonight.