We Should Enjoy Rooney's Versatility

Published: 18th February 2015 02:50 PM  |   Last Updated: 18th February 2015 02:51 PM   |  A+A-


Critics of decision to play Man Utd talisman in midfield should instead see it as a testament to the player's skill, writes Jonathan Liew


Sometimes I wonder if the government should consider nationalising Wayne Rooney. After all, he is public property in all but name: lantern-bearer in our age of darkness, lightning rod for our wrath, receptacle for our neuroses. Should George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four ever come to pass, the Two Minutes' Hate would surely consist of people screaming their undiluted loathing at a large picture of Rooney's face.

The most recent wave of Rooney?angst regards his redeployment to central midfield under Louis van Gaal: a fairly mundane tactical decision on the face of things, and one that Sir Alex Ferguson occasionally undertook.

However, the howls of protest from famous former players like Paul Scholes, largely forgotten former players like David May, pundits, columnists and fans hint at a certain personal grievance: a general shrieking that carries just the faintest whiff of old school English exceptionalism to it.

On one level, this should scarcely be surprising. Moving a player away from his favoured position - especially one as talented and totemic as Rooney - has long been seen in this country as one of the most disgusting things a manager can do to another human being.

"Gareth Bale, he plays on the left," Spurs fans famously sang when Harry Redknapp had the temerity to let him loose in the centre, a decision that ultimately sealed his transformation from nippy left-back to chiselled, robo-powered Madrid colossus.

Perhaps this is a bit of a stretch, but I wonder whether there is a certain endemic rigidity to the way we are wired as a nation. This is, after all, the country that produced David Hume and Charles Babbage and Adam Smith, that built an Industrial Revolution on the idea of systematically divided, highly specialised labour, that effectively forces schoolchildren to pick a career at the age of 15, and sets about its football with a roughly similar emphasis: rote, routine, label. There is an orderliness to the traditional 1-11 tactical layout - goalkeeper, defence, midfield, attack - that is inherently pleasing to the English eye.

And yet while players get shuffled for all sorts of reasons, we seem to get so much angrier when it is one of our own. Rafael Benitez was ridiculed at Liverpool for daring to move Steven Gerrard to the right, and Van Gaal is currently undergoing a similar trial by forked tongue. How dare these foreigners come over here with their leather-bound notebooks and stinking cheese and bad pop music and start telling Wayne Rooney - England's Wayne Rooney - where to play?

On the continent, by contrast, they seem a lot more chilled out about this kind of thing. Jose Mourinho takes a strangely paternal pride in reassigning players: Davide Santon to left-back, Cesar Azpilicueta to left?back, Pepe to midfield. Meanwhile, few managers have done more to disassemble the traditional geography of football than Pep Guardiola: from Dani Alves's reinterpretation of the full-back role to Philipp Lahm's metamorphosis into Bayern Munich's all-seeing midfield oracle.

Guardiola's most recent achievement has been the reinvention of David Alaba along similar lines: a left-back by trade, but seemingly just as comfortable popping up on the right wing, in the centre of defence, or in your kitchen preparing a delicious supper for your family. Alaba, like Lahm, is becoming the complete player: tactically astute, physically robust, first-aid trained, great with children. And he is at the amorphous vanguard of a very modern school of football thought: one that sees players not as parts in a machine, but as actors in a production, ad?libbing as they see fit.

The point here is not that Rooney is a better midfielder than he is a striker, which would clearly be nonsense. The point is that for any fan with even the slightest intellectual curiosity, for anyone with even the slightest thirst for disorder, for anyone who finds the unknown even slightly thrilling: why would you not want to see him try?

And, more contentiously: why would you not want to see him succeed? The successful position leap is a triumph of so many things: vision, ingenuity, courage, perhaps a certain egomania too. Not least, it is a testament to the skill of the player himself. Nobody ever wondered aloud if Jermain Defoe might have been better in midfield. Even as he stews on the edge of the centre circle, it is possible for Rooney to interpret this entire farrago as the most oblique of compliments.

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