Eye On EPL

Van Gaal's Rooney strategy bordering on the farcical

Wayne Rooney
Wayne RooneyPHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The life of a top-class football striker can be both delightful and depressing.

When the goals are flowing, fans want your autograph, team-mates adore you and coaches can't stop singing your praises.

But when those scoring boots go Awol, the same fans want you dropped. Team-mates claim you are not working hard enough up front and coaches are suddenly hesitant to mention your name to the media.

It is a tough, lonely job, particularly in today's game where strikers play by themselves up front and must deliver goals to justify all the tedious passes around packed mifields.

So let's look at the curious case of Wayne Rooney.

Rooney needs time to regain his movement and positioning in and around the 18-yard box. It does not help that his support man, Memphis Depay, is still finding his feet in English football.

The Manchester United captain has not scored in 858 minutes of competitive football.

Does that make him a bad player overnight? No.

Does that make Louis van Gaal a bad manager right now? Yes.

The Dutchman boasts a wealth of experience and tactical know-how.

Unfortunately, he has an unrivalled ego too.

The way he has handled a player who is 20 goals away from breaking Bobby Charlton's scoring record at Man United is frustrating and farcical.

He deployed the 29-year-old as a holding midfielder last season, adding to the confusion after previous managers Alex Ferguson and David Moyes stuck him on the wing to suit Robin van Persie.

Now, because of United's chaotic transfer dealings, van Gaal wants Rooney to instantly become a 30-goal hitman - a figure the Englishman last surpassed back in 2011-12, when he scored 34 times in all competitions.

It is not as easy as flicking a switch. At the highest level, space is at a premium for strikers, who have to play mostly with their back to goal.

Rooney needs time to regain his movement and positioning in and around the 18-yard box. It does not help that his support man, Memphis Depay, is still finding his feet in English football.

Van Gaal's system does him no favours either.

The midfielders take too long to get the ball to a roaming Rooney. By the time he receives it, the two opposing centre-backs as well as the defensive midfielders will have closed him down.

Manchester City and Arsenal are far more decisive and incisive in the final third, creating a steady supply of chances to respective targetmen Sergio Aguero and Olivier Giroud.

Rooney has never been the best dribbler in tight spaces anyway. He thrives when receiving the ball in space and running at back-pedalling opponents.

Many feel he is best suited for the No. 10 role, as the link-up guy between midfield and attack, especially as he wears the number. But Juan Mata has better vision and technique for that position, which means the Englishman has to find a way to make it work at his current No. 9 spot as the lone striker.

There is no questioning his work rate. But when he gets frustrated by the lack of support, he drops back to an already crowded midfield.

With no one playing along their shoulder, the opposing backline can then push up and further stifle United's attack.

Speaking as a former striker, goals define your career. Rooney needs them, and quick.

Van Gaal may have no choice but to show patience, given a lack of attacking options.

But United fans - many of whom still remember Rooney's past contract fiascos - will not be as forgiving.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2015, with the headline 'Van Gaal's Rooney strategy bordering on the farcical'. Print Edition | Subscribe