Can Rooney solve United's midfield woe?

November, 2, 2011
11/02/11
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Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty ImagesManchester United might have found a solution to its midfield problem -- Wayne Rooney, who excelled in the center of the pitch against Galati.

Combat stress reaction: a range of behaviors resulting from the stress of battle that decreases the combatant's fighting efficiency. That's a definition for the psychological condition commonly referred to as "shell shocked," and it appears Manchester United's players are still suffering the reverberations from the derby beatdown at the hands of Manchester City.

We saw evidence of that this past weekend at Goodison Park as Sir Alex Ferguson celebrated his side's 1-0 victory over Everton, employing an understandably cautious tactical approach to try to put the 6-1 nightmare in the rear-view mirror.

But Ferguson's men did one better against Otelul Galati in the Champions League on Wednesday, defeating 2-0 the Romanian minnows, a side that conceded defeat even before the opening whistle blew. Its manager, Dorinel Munteanu, wanted only to make sure his side wasn't crushed. Somehow, though, you can't figure Ferguson will be too thrilled with his side's performance, which was labored and uninspired. At times, especially in the first half, United passed the ball around in little triangles in its own third. With such a slow, unadventurous tempo and Galati doing little to pressure the ball, Ferguson's men kept possession but created few chances. Players such as Anderson, Jonny Evans and Nani also gave away the ball too cheaply, too often. Shocking, I know.

The first goal came early, in the seventh minute, after some good give-and-go between Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov, who passed the ball to the overlapping Phil Jones. A beast down the right-hand side for the entire match, the fullback crossed the ball to the near post, and while Michael Owen missed the ball (and would end up going off injured), Antonio Valencia did not. The second goal didn't come until the 87th minute, and as the match wore on, it served only to give hope to Galati -- a side that, to hear Ray Wilkins sickenly tell it, should all but get down and kiss the Old Trafford grass for the privilege of playing in England.

The threat of an equalizer finally disappeared thanks to Rooney. His shot probably would have gone off target if not for a nasty deflection that gave Galati keeper Branko Grahovac no chance. Tough luck, as the Romanians were solid in defense, especially the center-back pairing of Cristian Sarghi and Sergiu Costin.

Aside from his shot, Rooney was at the center of the story once again. Just as Ferguson did against Everton, dropping him deep, the No. 10 positioned himself in the center of the park -- perhaps, finally, an admission from Sir Alex that the only way to solve the lack of steel in midfield is by moving his best player to that position. Cue the inevitable comparisons between ex-United legend Paul Scholes, who looked a bit strained watching from the stands before that second goal, and Rooney.

There are clear differences between the two, including that Scholes was always predominantly a midfielder, while Rooney is a finisher from close range. That said, he showed off some of that so-called "Scholes ability," receiving the ball, keeping the ball and thinking ahead. On numerous occasions against Galati, he made excellent cross-field passes to pick out his teammates. Sometimes he was overly ambitious, such as when he tried to find Jones in the 15th minute down the right. At others, Rooney was spot on. He intercepted a pass in the 28th minute at the halfway line, heading the ball to Javier Hernandez, who scuffed his shot wide. And it was Rooney who came out of nowhere in the 55th minute to stop Sorin Frunza from unleashing a shot on his left foot.

Creator, destroyer, distributor -- Rooney played those roles quite well.

"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."

Whether Ferguson keeps his best player in the center of the pitch remains to be seen. This could be the beginning of a long-term evolution for Rooney or a mere blip until Ferguson figures out who else can help run the engine room, a place where Anderson, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher have struggled. And while we're on the subject of mistakes, Nani took a pass from Evans in the 42nd minute and lazily tapped it past Rooney. Galati's Ionut Neagu found himself in a one-versus-one with Rio Ferdinand, the subject of Ferguson's ire this week, but David de Gea made a wonderful save to keep United in the lead. Slipshod play, nonetheless.

The return of injured Tom Cleverley will influence any long-term decision on Rooney's future. When he's in the side, United will move and pass with more aggression and purpose. Keeping Rooney rooted to midfield probably isn't ideal, either, as the team is putting one of its most prolific strikers farther away from the target. And Rooney has demonstrated that he's not as strong a long-distance shooter as he is inside the box. His fortunate goal against Galati was his first from outside the box in the Champions League since October 2008. That, too, is in contrast to the rockets Scholes used to launch.

But Rooney gave United the possession and defensive shield it so desperately needs; by the 68th minute, for example, he had completed 71 passes. The Red Devils got their win, went to the top of their group and took a big step toward qualifying for the knock-out round.

Will Rooney still be in the center of midfield by then, when the prospect of facing Barcelona or Bayern looms? Whether rotating the right-back role to cope with injuries or moving Jones and Rooney into new areas, Ferguson has proved that necessity is the mother of invention. But is it good enough?

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