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The Roaming Spirit called Rooney

After the wonderful season Rooney had last year in front of goal banging in 26 goals in 32 games in the premier league and 34 goals in 44 games overall, this season’s 10 goals in 24 games in the premier league can be considered a step backward by most. Sandwiched between the two seasons were the debacle of the 2010 World Cup campaign and the contract negotiation saga that saw him being linked with Manchester City.

After doubling his wages, Rooney produced a series of not-so-impressive performances considering he was on the wage of a “great player” and great players are supposed to carry teams through games when such teams may be mediocre. In January here, I asked the question, “What kind of player is Wayne Rooney nowadays?”. Over the past few weeks, Sir Alex Ferguson has come up with an answer.

Manchester United has reverted to using a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 with Javier Hernández playing ahead of Rooney. Rooney now plays in a deeper role where he utilizes his creativity, ability to dictate tempo and diverse passing ranges to improve team build-up play, create chances for others players and himself. Hernández can be described as a goal-scoring forward (not necessarily a clinical striker) and this complements Rooney’s new playing style.

Boy Wayne is enjoying his new role!

Interestingly, the way Rooney has taken to this “new position” is unsurprising given his quality passing and thought. Some observers have previously stated that Manchester United should look no further than Rooney to replace Paul Scholes in midfield. But last season, he proved he could be a world-class poacher leading the line in a 4-5-1, making runs off the last defender and getting on the end of crosses and increasing his penalty box awareness. Given the presence of Hernández, who has been an absolute revelation, Rooney’s new role seems to be the way forward for him.

The roaming spirit indicates the freedom associated with this new Rooney. He has such freedom to roam and think. Against Everton, after Manchester United went ahead, he retreated to a position behind the midfield and in front of the defence (something not dissimilar from Sergio Busquets’ space at Barcelona). Interestingly, this space was also occupied by Scholes earlier in the season. He used his ability to dictate tempo and keep Manchester United in control of the game. This ability to roam the pitch is what makes Rooney different from other deep strikers. It also exploits the natural love for the game he has. His love to be in constant contact with the ball sees him retreat to midfield, the defence and join the attack as he sees fit. He plays like a free-spirit, unshackled from the horrors of last year.

Guidolin moved him inside and Pozzo tripled his price tag0

This season has seen Udinese surprisingly move into contention for the Champions League place in Italy this season. They buy cheap, sell expensive set-up run by Club Chairman Giampaolo Pozzo in Udine and coached by Francesco Guidolin is currently 5th in the Italian Serie A, a point behind fourth-placed Lazio. The tactician has currently settled for a 3-5-2/3-5-1-1 system explained in detail here, replacing the 4-3-3 (where Alexis Sánchez usually played on the right side of the front 3) employed by former Udinese and recently fired Parma coach, Pasquale Marino, last season.

Guidolin who usually relies on the 3-5-2 implemented this system earlier in the season at Udinese. In a move similar to utilizing Jonathan Biabiany as a second striker (who also played frequently on the right side of the front 3 in a 4-3-3) at Parma last season, Guidolin after weeks of tinkering finally decided to play Sánchez as a second striker at Udinese. This move has worked wonders for both the player and club.

Udinese play a quick game involving direct quick balls to the forwards, working passing triangles down the channels with periods of controlled football managed by Gökhan Inler in the middle. As it happens with most wingers when moved in-field, Sánchez tends to drift wide more right (his home) than left. This makes him more difficult to mark.

Alexis Sanchez – Udinese’s hottest property!

“Once Phil Neville tried to man-mark me but I was used to it. I came from an Italian league that was very advanced and I knew how to get rid of the man-marking.”

“In Italy, it happened all the time and I knew what positions to take to lose my man, I used that to my advantage and scored.’ Zola speaking to Chelsea TV.

From the short quote above, the art of evading a marker with good off-the-ball movement is something learned/honed. For a traditional winger playing centrally aka central winger, evading a marker can be much easier. The freedom to roam, which Sánchez has, causes a problem for sides. Man-marking Sánchez means the opposing side will definitely leave spaces to be exploited in other areas. Udinese have used only about 18 players on a consistent basis this season but usually employ a regular starting-eleven. The negative of this is fatigue associated with some of their recent performances. The positive gained from this is enhanced team chemistry. His combination with other players out wide (passing triangles involving a wing-back and a shuttling midfielder) usually leaves any man-markers for dead. Utilizing zonal-marking against Udinese will create an overload for Udinese in regions he drifts as he works in combination with other teammates.

A key feature of Udinese’s game is getting Sánchez on the ball to run at defenders whether out-wide or through the centre. This exploits his natural style which includes an array of skills, impressive work rate and the ‘braveness of a lion because he will take the ball in any situation’.

In Udinese’s 3-5-2/3-5-1-1 system, Sánchez frequently helps complete a midfield-diamond which creates a numerical dominance in this region. It helps Udinese’s control play and provides enough bodies for marking assignments in midfield.

A Bit of both systems

Given Manchester United has been linked with Alexis Sánchez in recent times, here’s a little take on the situation.

Manchester United is a side that relies on creativity from out-wide (trust in the wide playmaker) a lot given Ferguson’s use of different variants of 4-4-2 involving crossing wingers. Creative, playmaking forwards in Dwight Yorke, Eric Cantona and now Wayne Rooney have also been part of Ferguson’s Manchester United. A good number of informed observers believe Manchester United will sign Ashley Young this summer while Martin Ferguson (Sir Alex Ferguson’s brother and Manchester United’s chief European scout) has watched Udinese this season.

There are similarities in Young’s and Sánchez’s style in recent times. Both have spent a considerable amount of time developing their game centrally and Sánchez has been relatively much more successful with 12 goals to Young’s 6 goals, 5 assists to Young’s 9 assists and with Udinese competing for a Champions League spot next season while Aston Villa are mid-table. Young though has played centrally and wide left this season implying less stability of position than Sánchez.

Is it by coincidence that Ferguson’s side has being linked with two wingers playing centrally? Actually both these players have been linked with Manchester United prior to their central roles this season and while Alexis Sánchez has greatly improved this season, the same cannot be said about Ashley Young. A return to a wide role at Manchester United will not be a problem for Young but it might be for Sánchez who has relished the greater freedom attached to playing centrally.


Ferguson’s best fit – Sanchez or Young?

How many playmakers?

If Young makes the move to Manchester United, it is likely his role will be out wide on the left side of midfield given he has played that role this season with success. For Sánchez, it is more complicated. Will Sánchez relish a return to a wide role after a year playing centrally with much success? Given the progress of the Rooney-Hernández partnership this year, it is unlikely Sánchez will play centrally if he makes the move. He will have less freedom and the art of evading a marker might be less difficult but his fantastic skill-set should see him through.

It is also difficult to anticipate his success given he has spent a year away from being stuck on the flanks. Young understands the English game better but Ferguson knows how to bring cultivate young players. If Manchester United brings in Sánchez, Ferguson can be relied upon to guide his progress. But before we continue, how many playmakers can a squad afford – with Nani, Rooney, Valencia who are already-present key players looking to continue in the squad?

Perhaps, the Manchester United fans should be thinking towards a “playbreaker”, not a playmaker, that Ferguson might have an intention of bringing in.

Article written by Uanhoro James

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