Manchester United come up against Wayne Rooney when they face Derby County in the FA Cup fifth round tonight.
An away trip to Norwich awaits the winners in the quarters as United seek to stay in their only remaining chance of domestic silverware this season.
The Rooney they come up against is a different player to the one who lit up Old Trafford for many a year.
But both Sir Alex Ferguson and Louis van Gaal did envisage this deeper midfield role in Rooney’s future and it is finally coming to fruition.
What did the former bosses say?
Ferguson moved Rooney deeper as early as 2011, with injuries to the likes of Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick for a Champions League clash with Otelul Galati.
“The first thing you have to say about him is that he receives the ball very well. He is aided by the fact he plays in a forward role, when receiving the ball is more of an issue.”
Van Gaal also tried to play Rooney in a midfield diamond and later in a 4-3-3 and as per the Guardian, said in 2015: “Not many players can easily switch positions but Rooney can, he is multi-functional. He can definitely play in more than one position.
“What I keep saying to Wayne is that your contribution for the team is bigger when you play at right half.”
Neither Ferguson or van Gaal was able to make the Rooney midfield experiment really stick, but that’s where he’s operating for Derby now.
Why didn’t it work at United?
Rooney was full of energy as a younger player and under Ferguson, he was always keener to be involved in the goalscoring action rather than bossing the game from deep.
He didn’t have the discipline for a more restrained midfield role, and United generally had better options in the engine room anyway.
Rooney was van Gaal’s captain and as his legs started to fade, he seemed more agreeable to a positional switch.
But the general quality of United’s play was on the decrease, van Gaal’s tactics were very rigid, which was at odds with Rooney’s instinctive way of playing the game.
There’s also an argument that Rooney lacked the experience of playing in the engine room needed to boss matches at the very highest level.
That’s not so much of an issue in the Championship – just like MLS – where the overall standard is lower and Rooney will get more respect.
But Rooney will be fired up to show his former employers what they’re missing tonight and United must ensure they have a plan to stop him bossing the game from deep.
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