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deVos: Rooney's role with United an early test for Moyes

Jason deVos
8/18/2013 9:25:08 PM
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Manchester United got their Barclays Premier League title defence off to a great start on Saturday, coming away from their opening fixture, away to Swansea City, with a comfortable 4-1 victory.

The game was far closer than the score-line indicated - especially in the first half - but new United boss David Moyes won't be too concerned about that. His first league game in charge was a real banana skin - Swansea had lost only nine games at home in two seasons in the Premier League before Saturday - but United were clinical in their finishing and solid defensively to claim all three points. 

With doubt over the future of United striker Wayne Rooney hovering, Moyes took the bold decision to start the England international on the bench against Swansea.

If Moyes' team selection upset Rooney, the striker certainly didn't show it. When he was introduced as a second-half substitute just after the hour mark, Rooney showed that he still has plenty to offer in a red jersey in Manchester.

His overlapping run for Robin van Persie's second goal of the game - United's third - was entirely unselfish. It was made to draw the attention of Swansea defender Ashley Williams (which it did), allowing van Persie to create enough room for his magnificent strike into the top corner. This is not meant to diminish van Persie's finish - it will be a candidate for goal of the month (if not goal of the year) in the Premier League - but van Persie would not have had the opportunity had Rooney not made the run to create space.

For United's fourth goal, Rooney found the pocket of space between Swansea's back four and their midfield, received the ball and turned in one motion before playing a slide-rule pass into the path of fellow England international Danny Welbeck, who coolly scored his second of the game. Again, Rooney played the role of provider rather than that of finisher - something United fans might be seeing much more of if Moyes decides to keep Rooney at Old Trafford.

While a move to Chelsea might be alluring for Rooney - he would almost certainly be José Mourinho's preferred option as a central striker - he should think long and hard about what role he has to play at United, before proactively pursuing such a move.

Robin van Persie is undoubtedly Manchester United's number one striker. 26 goals and the Premier League's golden boot last season were underlined by both of his sublime finishes against Swansea; he is the best finisher in the league, bar none. Unless Moyes wants to play with two strikers - something that is becoming more and more of a rarity in the modern game - Rooney is always going to be second choice when playing with a single striker is the chosen formation.

If van Persie suffers injury or an improbable lack of form, Rooney would be first choice to take up that position. If the Dutchman remains healthy and in-form though, Rooney can still have a role to play as an attacking midfielder in Moyes' side.

Despite being the reigning Premier League champions, United have failed to improve their squad over the close season, and their bid for Cesc Fabregas was merited. The one area they are most in need of upgrading is in the attacking midfield role.

If Moyes is unable to bring in a player of Fabregas' quality before the end of the transfer window, Rooney may prove to be an able deputy.

He has played that role before, and did so admirably when he came on as a substitute just after the hour mark. (In fact, many will argue that this was always going to be Rooney's role once van Persie was brought in before the start of last season.) Rooney has the ability to get in between players, to find space between the lines, and as his through ball for Welbeck's second goal showed, the passing range to be a creative threat.

If he is going to play in Moyes' team, Rooney will have to accept that his role is changing. He still offers a legitimate goal scoring threat (what defender wants to see an in-form Rooney getting the ball, turning, and running at him?) but as an attacking midfielder, he will have to play a more creative role than he is accustomed.

Defensively, Rooney might prove to be a liability in that role, though. As more and more teams adapt their formations to accommodate a single striker, the midfield trio that is commonly preferred must be defensively responsible. They must be able to track back when required and interchange positions when needed.

As the player most often furthest forward, the attacking midfielder must be tactically astute; able to cut off the first pass from defence into midfield, and to deny the opponent's deep-lying midfielders time and space in which to play. Against the best teams in the Premier League - and in particular the best teams in the Champions League - this is where Rooney will be found out.

How David Moyes handles the Rooney situation will be an interesting storyline to follow this season. Unless the arrival of a world-class attacking midfielder is imminent, I think it would be in Moyes' best interest to keep hold of Rooney. The fact that Moyes preferred a 39-year old Ryan Giggs in that role over his other options on Saturday means that he doesn't have much choice. But convincing Rooney that he has a different role to play if he is to stay at United will be a real test of Moyes' man-management ability.

Jason deVos

Jason deVos

As one of Canada's most accomplished soccer players, Jason deVos spent nearly 20 years on the pitch playing competitive soccer at the highest professionallevels in Canada and around the world. After retiring from international play, deVos began his broadcasting career as a soccer analyst with the CBC and GOLTV. Most recently he provided commentary and analysis for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa for the CBC.

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