Has English football's great underachiever left it too late to make up for his wasted years?
Nothing showed how little we've come to expect from Wayne Rooney more than the different ways we talked about him and Zlatan Ibrahimovic last season. It was generally agreed that Ibrahimovic bore a huge burden at Old Trafford, that he needed to provide plenty of goals and generally inspire the team to success. Rooney, on the other hand, was viewed as a player with his best days behind him, someone who couldn't be expected to contribute a few cameos at this stage of his career.
The odd thing about this was that Ibrahimovic is four years and three weeks older than Rooney. Yet the prophesies came true, the old-timer contributing 28 goals while the younger man only managed nine. And while Rooney was allowed to slip away from United on a free transfer at the end of the season, Jose Mourinho expended considerable energy on securing Ibrahimovic's services for another year, that deal being concluded a few days ago.
Ibrahimovic does seem much younger than Rooney on the pitch as he bounces, struts and occasionally ponces around the place with all the joy of a man starring in his own rap video. Rooney's demeanour is more like that of a coal miner forced to return down t'pit after the end of the general strike. For the past couple of seasons he's resembled a man tasked with miming the phrase, 'It's a dirty job but someone's got to do it,' in a game of charades.
The petering out of his lengthy stint at United contributes to a feeling that there's been something slightly unsatisfactory about Rooney's career, something incomplete about it. Why should this be? The stats are hugely impressive: the 253 goals which have made him United's all-time record scorer, the 53 which have earned him the same distinction for England. You'd imagine there would be unanimous agreement that this constitutes one of the glorious English football careers.
Yet doubt persists. The memory of all those major finals tournaments where Rooney (right) proved enormously disappointing, having been hyped to high heaven in the build-up, has something to do with it. So do the stratospheric expectations which once attended him. In the run-up to the 2011 Champions League final the English media were seriously suggesting that the match would prove whether Rooney or Messi was the better footballer. I can remember too when suggesting Cristiano Ronaldo was better than his Manchester United team-mate would have been viewed as a heresy, while the idea of Ibrahimovic as a better striker than Rooney would also have been laughed out of court not too long ago.
Maybe the expectations were too high but there was a time between 2009 and 2012 when Rooney did look genuinely world-class. His best season was perhaps in 2011-'12 which saw his highest Premier League goals tally of 27 and also his joint highest European total, five from seven games in the Champions and Europa Leagues. Yet how feeble that five looks beside the totals of not just Messi and Ronaldo but a host of other top strikers in the European game. Compare his 30 goals in 85 Champions League games to the 40 from 61 of Robert Lewandowski or the 46 from 81 of Filippo Inzaghi and the extent to which Rooney fell short of fulfilling his promise is obvious.
You can argue that Rooney was not an out-and-out goalscorer in the mould of those players yet Kaka, a midfielder, scored the same amount of Champions League goals as the United legend. And memory offers few examples of Rooney taking over a really big European game in the same way that the really great players have done so often.
Oddly enough, Rooney largely escaped criticism for going missing in big games from the kind of pundits who are normally ultra alert to this offence. This may be a cultural thing. All that snarling and snapping from Rooney was always enough to convince native analysts that he was an entirely different animal from those dodgy foreigners who don't like it up 'em. Yet the fact remains that for all the thunderous volleys, wonderful overhead kicks and thumping headers, Wayne Rooney never quite became the player he could have been. His final two seasons yielded just 23 goals from 80 games. Ronaldo, who's actually a few months older than Rooney, has scored more in his last two seasons than Rooney's scored in his last five.
It may be that Rooney himself feels he has fallen short and that this is why he opted for a move to Everton rather than to the US, China or one of the other highly paid knacker's yards of world football. The ecstatic reaction of the English media to his performance against Manchester City shows that they at least still believe. Whether Rooney can repay their faith will be one of the more intriguing questions of this Premier League season.
Sunday Indo Sport