Rooney needs freedom of central role to escape rut
Ferguson must allow striker to use natural playmaking instincts to restore confidence, writes Duncan White
What has been Wayne Rooney's best single performance since injuring his ankle against Bayern Munich back in March?
There are not many contenders but the two that stand out are those for England against Bulgaria and Switzerland earlier this month. That he scored against the Swiss was only the gloss on performances of wit and verve.
After the poor performances at the World Cup, which had seen him booed by some England fans in the Hungary friendly in August, it can hardly be because he felt more comfortable in the national shirt. No, the difference between those games and those he has played for Manchester United this season was tactical: Rooney was playing in the hole.
And Alex Ferguson might follow suit to get Rooney out of a different kind of hole. The United manager has conceded that the pressures exerted upon his player regarding what he euphemistically called "non-football-related questions" is draining him. "He would like to keep playing with freedom," Ferguson said, "but the siege of the tabloids can wear out anyone."
Retreat is not an option. Rooney, you suspect, cannot coop himself up away from the world. This is someone who says he can hardly sit still in front of the TV, a player who is described by Ferguson as being like a hyperactive child on European trips. If there is anywhere Rooney can find freedom at the moment, it is almost certainly on a football pitch.
The problem is that the pitch has not been a reliable friend of late. He was completely outshone by the (belated) languid regality of Dimitar Berbatov against Liverpool last Sunday. More worryingly, in the closing stages of the game, Ferguson sent on Federico Macheda for Ryan Giggs and pushed Rooney out to the left wing.
It was a throwback to Cristiano Ronaldo's last season at United when Rooney had to play wide left to accommodate the Portuguese playing as a striker, especially in European games. Having destroyed all before him as a lone striker last season, Rooney is now being exiled back to his role on the fringe of the team. Confidence-sapping stuff.
The bold move against Bolton today would be to mimic Capello and play Rooney in a deep role, just in front of Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes, with Ryan Giggs and Nani out wide, and Berbatov up on his own.
Think of the role Mesut Ozil, Kaka and Andres Iniesta played in the World Cup. Against Liverpool Rooney played alongside Berbatov in a 4-4-2, but if he moves into a playmaking role he could find himself revitalised.
After his superb performance in the Bulgaria game, Capello said he had played Rooney in the new role because he wanted him to touch the ball as often as possible. Rooney was out of form (600 minutes away according to Capello after the Hungary game in August) but, the logic went, if you forced him on to the ball it would fast-track him out of his rut. With his talent he would play his way back into form. And sure enough that's how it worked -- there were still some rusty touches, some poor decisions, but overall he looked hungry, rejuvenated.
Similarly in Basel. Many thought he was not in the right mindset to play that game, just two days after revelations about his private life.
Yet playing in that role, he did not have time to get frustrated. He did what he has been best at since he was a kid: received a football at his feet and did something special with it.
After scoring 34 goals as an orthodox -- and often lone -- striker last season, it might appear counter-intuitive to ask him to play as a trequartista but actually, from his first explosive emergence with Everton, it has always appeared the position best suited to his talents. His instinctive movement into space is of the highest order -- it makes him very difficult to mark -- while his passing is under-rated. He is also brilliant at making room for himself on the edge of the box and shooting. Where this strategy might prove even more effective is in the Champions League, where Ferguson is always extremely cautious about his team getting out-numbered in midfield. Fletcher does a lot of compensatory work for Scholes' relative lack of mobility so Rooney's energy, if disciplined, would be an asset in a more central area.
Against Rangers, Ferguson's (admittedly weakened) side struggled to break down a well-organised opponent. This should not have been a huge surprise. Last season, Rooney's superb form often disguised the fact that the team was suffering from a Ronaldo hang-over, struggling to carve open stubborn teams.
With the boon of Berbatov's form this season, the luxury of playing Rooney in the hole would give the team a fluidity between the lines that determinedly defensive teams would find harder to deal with. Against more attacking opponents, like you would expect Valencia to be, he could be used as the hub of counter-attacks, something Manchester United have specialised in over the years.
Rooney's problems on the field did not begin with tabloid revelations, they started when he turned that ankle in Munich back in March.
He has never recovered the confidence of last winter. Capello seemed to have him back on the right path. Could Ferguson follow?
Bolton v Manchester United,