Seasons watched: 2004–05 to 2007–08 (Age 18–21 seasons according to FBref)
For a player who reached the heights that Wayne Rooney did, there still remains a certain degree of “what if” which surrounds him. This is largely due to him having a career arc that was slightly atypical from what tends to happen for star talents. He was thrust into playing regular Premier League minutes at age 16 and more than held his own, won everything by being a key complimentary star for Manchester United during the late 2000’s, and had his prime cut short due to injuries before a slow decline occurred in the 2010’s. Rooney’s international career was quite star-crossed, performing very well in Euro 2004 as a teenager yet never coming close to repeating those efforts in subsequent tournaments throughout the rest of the decade due to injuries.
The version of Rooney that this profile will be focusing on is from the mid-late 2000s, when he was at his athletic peak and known more for his adaptability. He wasn’t the go-to guy in attack like what would eventually happen in 2009–10, where the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez forced Manchester United to deploy a Rooney-centric attack that constantly force fed him passes in the final third. Rather, his under-21 seasons featured him as a complimentary star, someone who could blend his strengths alongside comparable or even greater talents.
There’s a tendency to sometimes overrate young players who appear to be able to do a lot of things, but none of them at a particularly high level. While I didn’t necessarily have those concerns going in, I was curious as to how well-rounded Rooney actually was during his early years. As well, I did wonder the level to which his collection of skills made it easier on his teammates to thrive going forward and create a cohesive attack. In essence, just how scalable was this version of Wayne Rooney?
Given how many under-21 seasons Rooney accumulated in the Premier League, it was long enough that his off-ball movement shifted somewhat in accordance with the talents around him. One common trait throughout this period was his propensity to drift slightly deeper in a free role, a tendency which increased even more from 2004–06 by how he played in Euro 2004 alongside a declining Michael Owen, and having to fit in around Ruud van Nistelrooy’s poaching instincts. Rooney could play that role solidly in part because of his overall awareness and wherewithal to present himself as a passing option to teammates.
In 2007 and 2008, he reoriented his movement to be slightly more aggressive in attacking space behind the backline. Although he wasn’t a lightning quick athlete, he possessed solid burst that allowed him to attempt different off-ball actions. He could make blindside runs into the box, or drag his marker just far enough from the defensive line and then sprint into space. In the box, he was always comfortable slithering in different directions before immediately getting to his spot for a quick shot.
A major reason why Rooney was a viable threat when playing in a more withdrawn role stemmed from his passing capacity. He could help initiate combination play to quicken the tempo, and his strength allowed him to occasionally link play with his back to goal after receiving ground passes. Higher up in the final third, he didn’t pass up a lot of opportunities to attempt passes into valuable areas, and his touch was more than good enough for him to be a viable playmaker. He also could create chances from wide as well via crosses into the box during transition attacks. Perhaps the biggest demerit for Rooney as a passer was that in central areas, he barely used his left foot. To compensate, he would often attempt deliveries using the outside of his right foot in the interior and showed some consistency in doing so.
In terms of dribbling and being a threat to create space as an on-ball threat, the results for Rooney were slightly more mixed. When operating on the flanks in 1v1 situations, he could be rigid with his movement and lack the shiftiness needed to consistently be a major threat from wide. He was more adept in the interior as a ball carrier through a combination of strength and above average acceleration, at times driving play singlehandedly via spectacular solo carries through the middle. He could also utilize his strength to maintain possession in congested areas before recycling possession. Another issue came from there being opportunities where he could turn receive and turn into open space, but would occasionally look to pass back to a nearby teammate.
Rooney possessed a bit of unpredictability with his shooting, both in terms of shot location and the technique used. There were times where he would settle for outside the box shots, and he wasn’t necessarily an outstanding shooter from range. He could hit them early to keep the defense unbalance, including shooting with his first touch. Since he generally opted for power as a shooter, it did mean that placement could be a slight issue for him.
It could be argued that Rooney’s level of versatility was similar to Patrick Kluivert, as their high level of proficiency in several areas were the key reason why they were valuable U21 attackers, rather than necessarily relying on a couple of overwhelming strengths. Rooney’s off-ball movement was quite good in different phases, including the kind of short runs within the box that you’d expect from a high-end goalscorer. He showed similar versatility as a passer, both from deeper areas and creating chances. If I had to pick what was his standout skill, I would lean very slightly towards his passing because he could punish set defenses and those that were unsettled in transitions. Compared to what I had expected before going through the film, he probably wasn’t quite the value added dribbler as I envisioned, albeit he still was a net positive. Could he had been slightly more disciplined as a shooter? I think that‘s a fair critique, but given how strong his decision making was overall, it’s not as if Rooney was taking a lot off the table.
Like with Michael Owen, the previous English phenom who came in and immediately lit up the Premier league, Rooney was productive right from the start. He placed in the top 10 in non-penalty goals and assists per 90 minutes in 2002–03 among 21 or under players within the big five leagues, and in the top 25 in 2003–04. This would be impressive for a 20–21 year old, but what made it remarkable was he accomplished this in his age 16 and 17 seasons. Under-18 attackers who are merely decent in a major league stand some chance of being at least a solid starter at their peak, and Rooney was considerably better than decent. His production steadily rose in the following years, peaking in 2007–08 where he finished in the top 10 among qualified players at 0.95 NPGA per 90, with only Karim Benzema matching him among U21 attackers. Besides him not quite reaching the same level of performance in the Champions League (albeit he was still generally good in Europe), it’s very hard to find any other holes in Rooney’s statistical resume.
The impressive part about Rooney’s individual output was it mirrored Manchester United’s rebound in form during the late 2000’s, as they were coming off of a relative down period from 2002–06. Those sides from 2007–09 represented United’s last great peak under Sir Alex Ferguson. The rise of Rooney and Ronaldo allowed them to transition to an attack that was more fluid and interchanging, which was heightened even more with Tevez’s signing in the summer of 2007. This paid dividends as their attack took a noticeable jump, particularly with their shot profile. From Opta, United’s shot volume increased from 16.4 per game in 2006, to 18.4 in 2007 and 18.3 in 2008. They managed this while also slightly increasing their percentage of shots in the box, going from 55.6% in 2006, to 57.6% in 2007 and 56.4 in 2008. Although those percentages aren’t impressive when compared to the dominant teams today, this was an era when there was a genuine trade-off between volume and quality.
The positive bump in attacking quality helped Manchester United level up and once again be one of the dominant clubs in Europe. They won back to back PL titles in 2007 and 2008, which was no small feat given Chelsea’s dominance under Jose Mourinho in the two seasons prior. After struggling in the CL following their treble winning campaign in 1999 (United didn’t even make it out of the group stage in 2006), they lost in the semifinals vs AC Milan in 2007 and won the entire thing a year later. This progression could be seen in United’s Elo rating, as it steadily improved in each season, with their high-water mark of 2026 in 2008 ranking among the top 10 historically.
It would be one thing if Rooney was producing at a similar level individually, but Manchester United’s underlying performance level constantly pegged them as merely a top ~10 club in Europe during this period. His case for being an all-time young attacker would likely be a harder sell since United’s financial resources dictates that being top 10 isn’t good enough. However, the strength of Rooney’s case comes from him having the best of both worlds with strong individual and team success. To go on a brief tangent, I’ve been producing these historical profiles for the past 14 months, and one of the things I’ve come to realize is that I place added importance on attackers who have the necessary skill-set to play alongside high-end talents and help push a team’s attack from good to very good/great. A leap of that magnitude is one that clubs constantly struggle to achieve, and it could be the difference between trying to qualify for a CL spot vs having some chance at contending for a league title. Om Arvind wrote a great piece on the different types of attacking archetypes which everyone should read, as it touches on the benefits of floor-raising and ceiling-raising.
It is pretty clear that of the two, Rooney was much more of a ceiling-raiser. His combination of purposeful off-ball activity in multiple phases and diverse passing allowed him to mesh well with others (not to mention his defensive work rate), which was why the Rooney/Ronaldo/Tevez trio had such a tremendous impact. Each of them were good enough at different skills so there wasn’t too much of an overlap. Rooney’s individual numbers were great from 2006–08, and that Manchester United’s 2007–08 side ranks among the best we’ve ever seen. He wasn’t without his faults, particularly his unspectacular on-ball athleticism when attempting to operate near the touchline. However, I wouldn’t say that’s a major strike against him seeing as a version of Rooney who could consistently beat his man in 1v1s from wide might’ve just been unstoppable. In the end, being a tremendously portable attacker was the key to his success, and that made Wayne Rooney a great attacking prospect.
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