A scorer of great goals

Wayne Rooney’s goalscoring record is better than he’s generally given credit for. In 243 matches for Manchester United so far, he has scored 102 goals — a goal every 2.38 games. He’s well and truly on way to becoming an iconic striker. By Karthik Krishnaswamy.

Wayne Rooney’s 100th goal for Manchester United, struck with the top of his closely-cropped head, was atypical of the England striker. Unlike his former team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney doesn’t often score headed goals. Maybe the manner of the goal he scored against Wigan and the start he has had to the new season are signs that the 23-year-old will emerge into the Old Trafford limelight from the shadow of the Portuguese winger — who has since moved ov er to Real Madrid — and become that iconic player Sir Alex Ferguson must have envisioned when he signed him as an 18-year-old for £25.6 million.

At the time he arrived from Everton, fresh from his eye-catching displays at Euro 2004, Rooney came carrying the ludicrous burden of being branded ‘The White Pele’, thanks to England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson stating, “I don’t remember anyone making such an impact on a tournament since Pele in the 1958 World Cup.”

Ever since, Rooney has had to endure censure for not fulfilling his potential; in other words, not fulfilling the irrational hopes of thousands of England fans who fervently hoped he was actually as good as Pele. Of course he wasn’t, but a tiny number are. He has a long way to go to even merit comparison with Zico, the original ‘White Pele’.

Such unrealistic expectations were, of course, entirely his fault. Few score top-flight goals at 16. Fewer still score them like Rooney did at Goodison Park in October 2002, a goal that ended Arsenal’s 30-game unbeaten run, lashing a 30-yard screamer past David Seaman, a man more than twice his age. And that was the simple bit.

What made the strike possible was the ease with which Rooney brought down a speculative long ball, cushioning it expertly with the top of his foot, just like Dennis Bergkamp did before tucking in his famous goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup quarterfinal. Some way to invade the national consciousness. “Remember the name,” cried commentator Clive Tyldesley, as the ball eluded Seaman’s fingers, “Wayne Rooney!” A year and a half later, Rooney burst into the world’s eye at Euro 2004 — four goals, all of them sumptuous, and until he limped off injured in the quarterfinal against Portugal, anything seemed possible. Not long after, he began life as a Manchester United player with a hat-trick on Champions League debut against Fenerbahce.

Since then he has been merely very good rather than great, imperfect like all humans, and a scorer of great goals rather than a great goalscorer.

The 30-yard rocket is his preferred mode of scoring goals, the volley even more so, like the one he smashed against Newcastle in 2005, with both feet off the ground even as the ball strained against the goal netting. Rooney also revels in catching goalkeepers off the line, stabbing underneath the ball with his right foot approximating the physics of a golfer’s lob wedge. The chip he placed beyond Portsmouth’s David James in an FA Cup fourth round match in early 2007, or a similar effort from longer range against Middlesbrough two years before that were reminiscent of Eric Cantona at his swaggering peak.

In between all this, Rooney has endured periods of powerlessness, like the 10-game goalless sequence in the early part of the 2006-07 season (which he ended with a hat-trick at Bolton) and more worryingly the 21-game international goal drought that stretched nearly three years.

In his lean phases, he can look dreadfully uncertain in front of goal. But scoring goals isn’t all Rooney does. Some strikers stay forever in that band across the pitch occupied by the opposing defenders, endlessly darting between them in straight lines and diagonals, hoping for team-mates to play the ball into the space. Others play with their backs to goal, holding off defenders, waiting to feed team-mates making forward runs.

Rooney wanders the pitch in search of the ball, wanting always to be in the thick of the action. His zone of movement extends all the way backward to his own team’s goal-line — you will often see him making tackles deep in his own half, or launching counterattacks from the right back position.

It is this tendency that tempts Sir Alex Ferguson to play Rooney on the wing in Champions League games, and have him close down opposing fullbacks and wingers, tracking them tirelessly from one end of the pitch to the other. Often, the tactic works, as it did against Porto and Arsenal last season. When it doesn’t, as in the final against Barcelona, Rooney can disappear from games as an attacking force. This sometimes causes people to question the trajectory of Rooney’s development as a player under Sir Alex Ferguson. The explosive Everton Rooney, who would run at defenders at every opportunity and unleash the venom of his right foot given the merest hint of space, has given way to a more rounded and tactically aware player, but one perhaps less exciting to watch.

Risking the unreliability of statistics that compare a player’s performance in two very different teams, and at two very different stages of his career, the numbers suggest that Rooney has moved in the right direction. At Everton, he scored 17 goals in 77 appearances, or a goal every 4.53 games. In 243 games for Manchester United so far, Rooney has scored 102 goals, or a goal every 2.38 games. This lies somewhere between the highly-rated Argentinean striker Sergio Aguero, who averages a goal every 2.48 games in his club career, and the young French star Karim Benzema, who nets a goal every 2.27 games. In short, Rooney’s goalscoring record is better than he’s generally given credit for.

Signs show it’s likely to get even better. Ronaldo’s departure to Spain will allow Rooney far greater opportunity to play in his preferred central attacking position, for one, and with more matches together under their belts, Rooney and the languid Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov are only likely to better their on-pitch chemistry. And under Fabio Capello, Rooney has scored more frequently for England than ever before — 10 goals in his last nine internationals. A bigger test awaits him in South Africa next year — England must surely qualify for the World Cup now — but metatarsals permitting, Wayne Rooney looks up for it.