Despite their success so far this campaign, Manchester United is a team in transition. Fans of other clubs won’t care to hear that assertion, since a transitory Man United squad is still packed with more star power than all but a handful of other squads, but it’s the truth. The stars of yester-year are steadily retiring while a new batch of youngsters cut their teeth with the first team. Many question marks have been answered thus far, at least tentatively. Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Rafael, and Fabio are the back line of the future. Ashley Young, Nani, and Valencia will rotate winger duties, with occasional help from Park Ji-Sung. Wayne Rooney, Chicharito, Danny Welbeck, and even Dimitar Berbatov will strike fear in the hearts of international keepers for years to come. But there is conspicuous absence of upcoming central midfielders, with the exception of young Tom Cleverly. To date, there has been no player adequately prepared to replace the recently departed Paul Scholes, a legend for club and country (England).
However, Sir Alex Ferguson toyed with a new experimental line-up this afternoon against Romanian champions Otelul Galati. Instead of featuring Wayne Rooney in his normal deep-lying striker role, SAF started his best player at central midfield. While the team may not have performed up to their capabilities, Rooney demonstrated he is fully capable of handling this new role. He provided confidence in possession in the central third, distributed wonderfully (he completed 71 passes by the 68th minute), provided defensive aid to save a goal, and even scored one himself. He did everything the current batch of central midfielders are supposed to do, only he did it better. Not only that, but he was happy to do. “I’ve said it before, I’m a good enough footballer to play anywhere on the pitch,” Rooney told reporters after the match. “That’s not being big-headed. I feel I’m capable of doing that. If the manager wants me to play there, I’ve no problem doing that.”
This presents several questions. 1 – Can SAF really afford to keep his best goal-scorer that far away from the net? 2 – Is the central midfield position really that weak to warrant such a positional shift? 3 – Can Rooney continue to produce the same way from midfield? 4 – Can Rooney become Scholes 2.0, only with a weaker long-range shot and better defensive technique? 5 – How many more yellow/red cards will Rooney accumulate by having him play more defense with his combustible attitude?
I don’t have any of the answers, but I’m hopeful that this gambit works in one of two ways. I hope it can light a fire underneath the central midfielders to step up their game so a striker doesn’t steal their minutes, and I hope that if he remains in the position that Rooney can continue to demonstrate himself as one of the most gifted players in the world. Either way, I won’t doubt the genius of Ferguson again.
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