Where would Manchester United be without Wayne Rooney? It is a question Sir Alex Ferguson probably does not want even to contemplate but Alan Pardew thinks he knows the answer. "I would go as far as to say Wayne Rooney is the difference between United being a top-four team and a top-two team," said Newcastle United's manager. "That's how influential and powerful he is." Pardew was speaking 48 hours before Rooney served as the catalyst for United's 3-0 Premier League win on Tyneside, where his deployment at the apex of Ferguson's new-look midfield diamond proved a key factor in Newcastle's undoing.
Quite apart from helping recalibrate United's resources, balancing their near-embarrassment of attacking riches and shortage of midfield steel, Rooney's new role seems ideally suited to a player who has lost some of the scorching acceleration over short distances which characterised his youth. Since then Rooney's vision has improved, his passing range is even more varied and his tackling technique has become more measured. Alongside such newly acquired poise the old energy, aggression, improvisation and sheer physical power still bristle, thereby making the England forward ideally suited to the all-consuming nature of attacking midfield life.
"Really enjoying my new midfield role, always involved," tweeted Rooney after the win at Newcastle. It is probably a good thing social media had not really taken off during the days when Ferguson regularly positioned the former Everton forward on the left wing and a resultant lack of involvement led to the odd tantrum. As he prepares to celebrate turning 27 later this month Rooney is slightly mellower but still sometimes struggles to contain an easily provoked anger. He remains a player best kept busy.
Happily, United have become so adept at kaleidoscopic positional inter-changing during games that there can be no excuse for boredom. On Sunday mini interludes saw Rooney join Danny Welbeck in attack leaving Robin van Persie to drop deep. Less frequent cameos featured him pulling wide – at appropriate moments Ferguson's diamond is sufficiently amorphous for width not to be sacrificed completely – and temporarily retreat into Michael Carrick's holding role at the diamond's base.
A telling moment arrived when Newcastle's Hatem Ben Arfa dodged Patrice Evra and sped down the right. Spotting the danger, Rooney intervened, directing the ball cleanly out of play courtesy of a splendidly timed sliding tackle. It prompted memories of his teenage days at Everton when onlookers claimed he could occupy any position, goalkeeper included, and star in virtually all of them. "I love Rooney," said Pardew. "I love his passion for the game – and his toughness."
Cheik Tioté prides himself on the latter quality but, more than once, Newcastle's Ivorian enforcer found himself struggling in a battle of strength with Rooney. While such muscularity should not be underestimated in the Premier League – and particularly when you are deployed in a diamond also featuring the less than tigerish Carrick, Tom Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa – Rooney's principal job is picking the defence-splitting passes designed to preface goals for Van Persie and company.
Not that a man who, due primarily to Roy Hodgson's limited attacking options, is likely to find himself reverting to an outright striking role for England, has abandoned the idea of scoring some himself. Indeed there is no reason why, often arriving late in the box a la Frank Lampard, Rooney cannot combine affording United enhanced midfield tempo with registering a decent percentage of their goals.
Nonetheless, there may be a psychological benefit to being regarded more as a creator than a pure finisher. In a sport containing as many ego clashes between high-profile strikers as instances of telepathy, Rooney does not appear remotely bothered by the prospect that Van Persie might start hogging the headlines.
He may not be an angel but, a few seasons ago, this selflessly intelligent streak frequently enabled Cristiano Ronaldo to strut his stuff at Old Trafford. Tellingly, on Sunday evening, Rooney suggested that, despite midfield's constant demands, football's mental pressures may not be quite as intense at the tip of that diamond.
"I'm not at all anxious about scoring," added Rooney, who is still waiting to celebrate his first goal of a season interrupted by injury. "We've got players who can score goals other than myself. I'm not concerned about it; if it comes, it comes. As long as we're winning I'm not really worried."
Considering Rooney is still not entirely fully fit in the wake of surgery and a month-long lay-off occasioned by Hugo Rodallega's studs slicing into his thigh at Fulham in August, Ferguson will not be unduly concerned by this mini goal drought. Instead the Scot simply seems excited that the results of an experiment begun during last week's Champions League victory in Romania against Cluj could yet compensate for United's central midfield deficiencies while potentially breathing fresh life into a redefined Rooney's career.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Audrey Pilato