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What’s Wrong with Manchester United's Wayne Rooney?

Wayne Rooney hasn’t been having the best year. Between injuries, poor performance, public outcry and private turmoil, he probably cannot wait until the calender rolls over. Things started out well; Manchester United began the year in second place in the Premier League, well within striking distance of Chelsea. On January 27th, Rooney’s header in the 92nd minute of the League Cup semifinal against rivals Manchester City found the net and sent United to Wembley.

Rooney would prove to be the hero in the final against Aston Villa as well, scoring yet another headed winner in the 74th minute after coming on as a substitute for Michael Owen shortly before half time. United’s first loss of 2010 didn’t come until the 20th of February and the club spent all of March at the top of the table. United appeared poised to win a record fourth consecutive Premier League title, and Rooney was in the form of his life.

Things started to go south on March 30th, when United faced Bayern Munich in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal at Allianz Arena. Rooney grabbed a goal just over a minute into the game and it appeared as though the Red Devils were going to keep riding their excellent form on through to the semis. It was not to be, however, as United quickly lost the run of play and Bayern were finally able to equalize with fifteen minutes left to play after Franck Ribery’s free kick deflected off of Rooney and into the net.

Things went from bad to worse in injury time, when Bayern went ahead and Rooney had to be carried off the pitch after what looked to be a serious ankle injury. At the time it appeared doubtful that Rooney would be available for the second leg of the Bayern Munich tie and there were some fears that his status for the World Cup could be in doubt. It would be an understatement then to call Rooney’s place in United’s starting XI just one week after the injury a surprise, but he was clearly still hurting and left the game in favor of John O’Shea after Rafael was sent off early in the second half.

Rooney entered Allianz Arena with 25 goals in the Premier League and 32 in all competitions. When the season ended, he had 26 and 34. Even after he appeared to be back to full fitness late in the season, the tremendous form that he had enjoyed for the majority of the season had deserted him. Rooney looked tentative, was often out of position and though the speed and quickness were still there in flashes, they weren’t on display nearly as often as they had been in times past. Bad runs of form happen to every player though, particularly when said player has missed time to do injury. Once training for the World Cup began, the word was that Rooney looked to be back on form and as fit as ever. England’s spirits were high, and a great deal of that had to do with the feeling that a bullet had been dodged where the team’s star forward was concerned. Needless to say, things didn’t really turn out as England’s faithful had hoped. The entire team performed well below expectations, but none were more disappointing than Rooney. As poor as he’d looked towards the end of the Premier League season, Rooney made even that version of himself look tremendous with his performance in the South Africa.

Emile Heskey’s place in England’s starting XI was largely attributed to the manner in which his game complimented Rooney’s, but during the World Cup the two were largely indistinguishable. Rooney was constantly out of position and seemed to have completely lost his first touch and his instincts. He looked his best when he was playing the role of big the big target-forward that holds up play, certainly a necessary component of England’s attacking style but not a component that a player of Wayne Rooney’s caliber should be aspiring to.

I have an exceptionally hard time believing that athletes at the highest level are ever simply not trying hard, and given everything I know of Wayne Rooney I find the idea even more preposterous. But there were times when it looked like he wasn’t trying, which might be even worse. On the world’s biggest stage, England’s most celebrated player gave the impression that he would have rather been anywhere else doing anything else. I’ll reiterate, I don’t believe that to be in any way the case. But to an English public (and tabloid media) desperate to affix blame, Rooney made a convenient target. And it wasn’t enough to point out that he’d been objectively awful; he was in the eyes of many lazy, selfish and quite possibly unpatriotic as well. What was supposed to be a triumphant return from injury and disappointment instead became a symbol of yet another English disappointment in the World Cup.

His reputation diminished, Rooney’s quickest path to redemption is to find the form he lost towards the end of last season. Performance trumps all in the world of sports, and if you score goals every sin will be forgiven. That form is still yet to be found, however. Rooney is performing much better than he did in South Africa, of that there is little doubt. But the dynamism still isn’t there, and as difficult a thing as it is to believe, he appears to be lacking in confidence. His off the field problems can’t be helping matters, but the performance issues began well before the tabloids fixed their gaze upon his personal life.

So, what’s the matter with Wayne Rooney? Who knows. It’s possible that it’s an exceptionally long run of bad form. He was banged up with numerous injuries of varying severity throughout last season, and so it is also possible that one of them (or a combination of several of them) is still affecting his play. Maybe it really is the smoking. But the Wayne Rooney we’ve seen these past six months is not the same player that was widely regarded as one of the ten best on the planet heading into the World Cup.

Rooney’s being left out of the team against Everton invites some concern about his current mental state and the confidence that Sir Alex Ferguson has in him at the moment. I’m confident that he’ll figure it out; for a 24 year old to suddenly forget how to be amazing when it is all he’s ever done would be a pretty crazy thing. But until he does, Manchester United supporters (and the English football-loving public in general, provided their club is not playing the Red Devils that week) almost certainly can’t help but feel a great deal of concern.


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