Wayne Rooney's two goals in Manchester United's 3-2 victory against AC Milan has once again produced the obligatory love in from the nation’s finest journalistic minds. But given that both opportunities were pretty straightforward is the analysis of Rooney's role last night or in fact in the wider context really accurate.
Wayne Rooney has been a saviour to football fans of one team or another for around 10 years. As a precocious schoolboy he was viewed by Everton fans as the reason for hope in the future. Since then he has graduated to carrying the hopes of one of the world's largest clubs, Manchester United, & a whole nation. In this World Cup year those aspirations will reach its zenith. Perceived as a one man titan for both club & country, Rooney is regarded as essential to the success of United & England.
Yet beyond the hyperbole the statistics paint a different picture. Rooney has scored more than 15 league goals in a season only twice - one of which is the current campaign. His goal ratio throughout his career is a goal every 2.5 games, which is reasonable without being spectacular. While his best return in a Champions League season is 4 goals. These statistics are not particularly flattering for Rooney but where do they sit in comparison with his peers?
For an accurate comparison I have taken the six seasons that Rooney has been at United as the time frame & have looked at league performances.
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The data is sorted in ascending order of goal ratio. Based on this criterion Rooney only betters Ronaldinho. It’s not surprising to see the likes of Eto’o, Villa or Henry at the head of the list, but even much maligned figures like Ibrahimovic, Totti & Forlan offer better returns than Rooney.
In Rooney’s favour are the assist statistics. He is among the top three in terms of assists ratio, & in total has the most credited assists. This would point to Rooney’s role as a creative player & perhaps explains his less than stellar goal scoring record.
Comparing Champions League football is a little harder as the number of games played does vary considerably between the players. However given the importance of the competition the figures are worth examining.
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A couple of things are apparent straightaway from the data. The most obvious being the greater difficulty scoring goals in the Champions League as witnessed by the higher goal ratios. While the other noteworthy stat is that English based players are the most featured players in terms of appearances. From Rooney’s perspective the table does not make great reading. Both his goal scoring & assist ratio are at the lower end of table. If performances in Champions League is a key criteria in judging a players exploits Rooney has some way to go to match the very best.
Obviously there are factors that the statistics do not consider. For example Diego Forlan’s appearances have been for the unfancied pair of Villarreal & Atletico Madrid, whereas Messi has played all his games for an extremely strong Barcelona side. And while mitigating factors need to be taken into account, Rooney’s statistics point to a good player not a great one.
Of all the players listed the most apt comparison is with Ronaldo given that they joined United at a similar time. Their subsequent career paths though have been divergent. Ronaldo improved year after year until he completely eclipsed the England striker. Proof of this was apparent in Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to use Rooney on the left wing to accommodate Ronaldo in the most important fixtures. And in response Ronaldo delivered some stunning performances. Over the last three seasons the Portuguese forward scored 66 goals & created a further 27. Rooney’s contribution was 38 goals & 31 assists, though he also appeared in nine less games. In their time together at United Rooney only outscored Ronaldo in the first two seasons & this is despite playing the majority of matches as the centre forward.
Overshadowed in their time together at United, Ronaldo’s departure in the summer signalled a crucial period in Rooney's career. He knew he had to deliver results for himself & his team. And granted the central role both on the pitch & in general, Rooney has produced his best season to date. His Premier League goal scoring record this season is a goal every 1.2 games. And the change of emphasis in Rooney’s positioning has resulted in all his goals being scored inside the box. However at the same time Rooney’s creative input has declined with only 3 assists compared with an average of 9 per season.
This performance highlights a couple of things. Firstly it has seen the reinvention of Rooney as a goal scorer rather than an attacking player in the manner of a Ronaldinho or Messi. And more importantly it is the first season that Rooney can justifiably claim his form is that of the world’s elite. So far throughout his career we've seen flashes of brilliance but no sustained performance over a whole season. And that is the crux of the debate. Great players perform at the very highest standards continually. For confirmation of this Rooney simply had to look across the pitch on Wednesday night to see a former great in action in the form of Ronaldinho.
One further lesson that Rooney would do well to heed is that epitomised by David Beckham. In the run up to major championships Beckham has often been built up to exorbitant heights by pundits & fans alike. The reality is that he (Beckham) is & always has been a very good player, rather than a great one. Thus while the hype can become all consuming it is performances on the pitch that matter. In this regard Rooney has elevated his play this season beginning the transition to great player - he’s just not there yet.