Monday, October 19, 2015

Is Wayne Rooney Still Elite?

By Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial)

In every sport around the globe scouts, fans, and managers are always looking for the next great star.

As much as we value a player's service and past triumphs, results in the present are the only thing that truly matter. Father time is undefeated, and for some, that realization hits like a ton of bricks.

In a way, Wayne Rooney has always been in a race against that time. To understand where we now stand, one must know how we got here.

At the of age nine, Rooney played for Copplehouse boys' club in the local Walton and Kirkdale junior league. The English prodigy scored 99 goals in a season before being spotted by Everton scout Bob Pendleton.

Signing to his favorite club was an absolute dream come true. He was so devoted, that he agreed to be the mascot for Everton in the Merseyside derby against Liverpool as an 11 year old. Evidently, dancing in a ridiculous costume wasn’t all he was good for.

In the 1995–96 season, he scored 114 goals in 29 games for Everton's under-10s and 11s, and by the age of 15, he was playing for the under-19s. It was always apparent that Rooney possessed a gift not seen from an English born player in generations. At the age of 16, Rooney finally made his first team debut and provided an assist as Everton drew 2-2 with Tottenham Hotspur.

His shining moment didn't come until Everton played Arsenal, when Rooney scored a last-minute goal for the win, ending Arsenal’s historic 30-match unbeaten run in the process. The goal also made Rooney the youngest goalscorer in Premier League history, earning this praise from Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger afterward:

"Rooney is the biggest England talent I've seen since I arrived in England. There has certainly not been a player under 20 as good as him since I became a manager here."

In one of the tougher decisions of his career, Rooney formally submitted a transfer request to Everton ownership in August 2004, despite the club offering him a new lucrative contract. The decision was devastating, but Rooney knew that he needed a change in order to reach the superstardom he so desperately craved.

Monitoring the situation was legendary Manchester United Coach Sir Alex Ferguson. Facing resistance from the board, Ferguson pleaded that Rooney was a once in a generation talent. Eventually, ownership caved, and a deal was struck. A fee of £25.6 million pounds was reached, making it the highest fee ever paid for a player under 20 years old.

Rooney’s debut for United would officially come against Fenerbahce in the Champions League on September 28th. All of the doubts and the second guessing were laid to rest, as Rooney scored a hat-trick and an assist, becoming the youngest player to score a hat-trick in the Champions League at the age of 18 years and 335 days.

Where has the time gone?

Entering his 12th season at United, Rooney has gone on to score 230 goals in all competitions. He has won 12 trophies in total, including 5 EPL crowns and 1 Champions League. He has brought unmitigated joy and moments of utter brilliance. His bicycle kick goal against Manchester City remains one of the best goals of this decade.

But, is he now simply a declining player, no longer worthy of a starting spot? Or is it a case of the standard being set so high, that it cannot be reasonably expected anymore?

I believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Wayne Rooney has always been an emotional player- yelling at a referee one second, before unleashing a venomous volley into the back of the net the next. He was at his exceptional best when playing off of a clinical and athletic striker. This player was content with occupying the penalty area while giving Rooney the freedom to thrive anywhere in the final third. He shot first, and thought second. Somewhere along the way that mentality seemed to be the exception, not the rule.

On the pendulum of blame, United have failed him as well.

All too often, the formations run out by its managers have gone away from highlighting his absolute strengths. What's best for Rooney has often been in conflict with what's best for everyone else. Under Ferguson, he was constantly played out of position, restricting his freedom while never discouraging his selfless desire to track back and defend.

Since Robin Van Persie's astonishing decline, United have instead brought in countless reinforcements for the midfield and the wings. Subsequently, the goals have dried up, as has any actual cohesion needed for a team expected to contend for all of the trophies. In the first three years of this decade, Rooney scored a staggering 84 goals through all competitions. The subsequent three have seen that number fall to 49.

The critics have been fierce this season. Two goals through eight EPL games, and too many point-blank misses to count. Pundits far and wide were calling for his benching, despite being the captain and emotional leader for a side that desperately needs it.

Then a funny thing happened this weekend.

Coming full circle, United won 3-0 at Goodison Park, with one of those goals coming off the foot of the Englishmen. It was his first away goal in 18 games, and his first at Everton since 2007. He moved into a tie with Andy Cole for 2nd on the all-time Premier League goal chart with 187.

Just a mirage, or a changing of the tide?

As has always been the case with Mr. Rooney, time will tell.

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