Last summer, Louis Van Gaal’s reign was ushered in on the back of promising victories over Real Madrid, Roma, Inter Milan and of course, the old enemy, Liverpool as the Reds ran rampant in the USA.
This and the eventual arrival of summer ‘Gaalacticos’ couldn’t have left United fans any happier. The disappointing doldrums of Moyes’ campaign beforehand seemed to be vanquished and the future looked bright once more. Of course, we were all brought down to Earth with a bump following Swansea’s smash and grab show at Old Trafford on the opening day of the season. We should therefore be quick to acknowledge Van Gaal’s words when he states in no uncertain terms that the most important game is still to come and taking three points from Tottenham during the inaugural game will be anything but easy.
The defeat to PSG serves to temper the enthusiasms of even the wildest fan as a 2-0 reverse was a dampener on what was otherwise a solid pre-season exercise. The sight of David De Gea flapping at the ball as he thinks of Spanish sunshine of course, causes concern but as that transfer saga looks set to rumble on it is perhaps United’s potential over-reliance on the selective talisman that is Wayne Rooney, which should have the Old Trafford power brokers just as worried.
It’s always difficult to compare and assess pre-season games. The manager’s near complete team change in the Barcelona game does little to develop the kind of seasonal consistency that a match or two a week usually brings so it’s difficult to judge and we must pay some lip service to these results in any event. Yet, who can forget Manchester United destroying LA Galaxy 7-0 in their first tour match last year? As new-boy, Herrera gave a brief glimpse of his creative ability in the aptly named Rose-Bowl, it was hard not to view the sumptuous play through similarly tinted glasses.
Contrast that with 2015, and it would be a hard not to conclude that the goals may be a little bit more difficult to come by if the status quo is maintained. Ironically, as crucial as De Gea was to United’s ability to seize fourth place last season, United conceded one less goal than Manchester City throughout the course of 2014/15 but over twenty goals less than their rivals on the scoring front. They were over ten goals behind the Champions, Chelsea too and as the old cliche goes, ‘goals win games.’
Van Gaal has done what all good managers should do, laid down the gauntlet to his striker, challenging him to bring home the kind of goal haul that the blue side of Manchester has come to expect from the diminutive, but deadly Aguero.
No one could tarnish Rooney’s on field achievements while wearing the red of United. He of course, fast approaches Sir Bobby Charlton’s goal tally for both club and country. Yet a closer inspection reveals a far more worrying pattern. Since 2011/12, the mercurial Merseysider has not mustered a Premier League goal tally of higher than 20 and it’s important that we explore some of the reasons why.
We only need but turn to the wisdom of Sir Alex for some help as it was he who recognised that Wayne needed to ‘play in’ to a season, particularly when returning from injury. He’s not a naturally fit player, certainly not blessed with the stature of Ronaldo or the durability of Giggs. Remarks around Rooney’s parent’s build as some form of future gauge remain harsh; it is well known that the England Skipper still ranks as one of the quickest in the team over 100 yards but at the front, where only a severe cutting edge will guarantee a return of 20 plus goals a season, the question is one of consistency.
Perhaps some of the frustration that Rooney felt during his first ‘asking away’ transfer saga was at least understandable. The Club had failed to significantly invest in the kinds of players needed to stay on a par with the oil rich superpowers of Chelsea and City but perhaps too, it was a personal recognition that he would no longer be the kind of player who would run the length of the pitch before smashing the ball into the top corner. He could be accused of trying this more than once too often in the past in turn contributing to some of his injury woes.
Charging forward with United three nil down to Chelsea in 2006 only to succumb to one of what would be three metatarsal fractures is the most symbolic illustration, even if this came during the initial phase of Sir Alex’s fourth and final ‘Red Renaissance.’
Now, a casual observer would point to the fact that on many occasions last season, the Captain was forced to deploy in the midfield and this is hardly the hunting ground for a natural predator. Yet to leave this point unexplored would be superficial as it’s not the only time he’s been played in a different position. Rooney’s versatility saw him operate out wide when Ronaldo was in full flow but being adaptable and versatile is often code for being less than absolutely essential in a chosen role. After all, tracking back and doing the dirty side of the game is crucial but would Suarez play in midfield and crucially, would Sir Alex have pitched for Robin Van Persie in his prime if United’s key man was delivering the kinds of returns needed?
These points should not be mistaken for an underestimation of what Rooney the footballer brings to the team or a dismissal of his ability to still provide a good goal return. Bursting onto the scene as he did with a wonder-goal against Arsenal and bullying world class defenders in Euro 2004 was always going to set English expectations unreachably high. The nation has, after all, always craved a successor to Gascoigne’s crown.
Interestingly, one of Moyes’ few successes while in the Old Trafford hot-seat was his management of Rooney and his understanding that he’s at his inspiring best when he’s raw, playing on the edge and instinctive. Any Premier League fan would have trouble dismissing his famous volley against Newcastle in 2005 as commonplace and closer observers would see the young striker expressing his fury and frustration in the direction of the referee immediately before lashing the ball home.
Of course, it would be remiss not to mention his expertly crafted overhead kick against City nearly six years later as it rightly sits on top of a pile that contains some of the finest goals from the likes of Shearer, Henry and Zola, to name but a few.
At his imperious best, Rooney runs the risk of red cards and wonder strikes but demonstrates his hatred for losing; a quality that reverberates throughout his team mates and subconsciously infects a crowd that never tires of chanting his name at the sight of one of his thundering tackles. This determination is only underlined by his uncanny ability to clinch crucial goals against United’s chief title rivals and his derby record is particularly remarkable. Marketability aside, It’s for this reason that Sir Alex persevered with Wayne when Beckham was given short shrift for much less and it’s precisely for this reason that Van Gaal made the former Blue, deepest Red when he awarded him the role of club captain.
This predisposition can only point the team in one direction. Serious investment is needed in the striking department if the best is to be gleaned from a player who has been at Old Trafford for over a third of his life. The larger question of ‘who’ should be sought is another matter entirely but for United to launch a serious challenge this forthcoming season, it would be impossible not to imagine the need for another striker’s name to be sung on the terraces which compliments, rather than competes with United’s main man.