One of the things you learn in the academic world is that you can use statistics to prove anything. The important thing is to have a theory and to build an argument around it. This process involves finding the right statistics to back up your idea. The theory going around at the moment is that Wayne Rooney is not playing well enough to start for Manchester United. Does the evidence support it?
This is the Monday after a Manchester derby that finished 0-0 and was short on incident. Both teams set up to play a cagey game and a cagey game is what we got. A draw probably suited both managers and keeps the hopes of both teams alive. But it doesn’t suit the media outlets of the world. They need something to talk about.
The word Rooney is guaranteed to attract a click or two and, despite the fact there were 22 players on the pitch at Old Trafford, it is on him that we focus this morning. The numbers I read are that he had a 55% pass completion rate and gave the ball away 5 times more than any other player.
In isolation those numbers look bad. Context tells us that strikers are bound to lose the ball more because their job is to try and score, to pull the trigger. It also suggests that he was one of the few players taking risks in a match where safety was the primary approach.
Looking at his season as a whole, Rooney has scored 6 goals in 14 appearances. These are not shameful statistics, nor are they world-beating. Whilst it is fair to say that he is not the most potent striker in the league, it is important to remember he is not just a striker.
Lest we forget, Rooney runs around the pitch a lot helping out his teammates, as a captain should. Nobody mentions in match reports the occasions when the captain clears from his own box or makes a last-gasp saving header. He does that too.
So the argument then is that Rooney should play on the left and Martial in the centre perhaps? That could make sense, but, in fact, the last time United had that formation they were utterly blunt as Arsenal destroyed them. Be careful what you wish for.
There seem to be many commentators who assume that putting Martial in the centre would justify their anti-Rooney stance completely. These people are perhaps ignoring the fact Martial played in from the left when at Monaco. Perhaps these are the same commentators who berated United for his purchase just a few short weeks ago.
Other arguments include starting Depay and Herrera instead of Rooney. Depay, whilst undeniably talented, is far too raw and inconsistent to start ahead of Rooney except in bespoke formations. Herrera does a terrific job wherever he plays but even he struggled against City.
Perhaps people are dissatisfied because United were not able to carve open a group of top international players who had been set out to play uber-defensively. You may argue it is United’s job to do precisely that, and fair enough. But they hit the bar, and were one Joe Hart save from nicking the game at the death too.
In no way is a nil nil draw at home to Manchester City a disaster but United may rue the chances they missed in this game as they remain two points adrift. My suspicion is they will not rue the presence of Wayne Rooney in the side this season.
The knives are certainly out for him though. The reasons for this, I might speculate, are as follows. He is slowing down a bit; he is from Liverpool originally; he is overtaking more lovable club legends in the scoring charts; he has overtaken more presentable players with international caps; he has asked for transfers and pay rises; he is not as good looking as some others.
Did Rooney play well against Manchester City? He did not. Did he play worse than Juan Mata or Ander Herrera? I don’t think so. He took the battering that whoever played striker would have taken against Kompany and chums on that day. His very presence gave Martial room to manoeuvre on the left and absorbed the attentions of City’s centre-halves.
In journalism they have an expression, “If it bleeds, it leads”. What this basically means is that bad news is better news than good news. Rooney will always attract headlines and they might as well be bad ones as far as the journalism industry is concerned.
It is interesting that people in the football industry tend to have a higher opnion of Rooney. Last week, Darren Fletcher gave and excellent interview in which he expressed horror at the way Rooney’s football is viewed. Recently Ronaldo expressed a desire to play with him again.
At last year’s World Cup, Michael Ballack called criticism of Rooney “crazy”. Louis van Gaal is fed up with taking questions on the subject. The tendency to knock down our champions is one of the grubbier and more unpleasant sides of the British psyche. Our foreign imports are unlikely to be impressed.
What is the objective of all this criticism? Perhaps to drop Rooney. I suggest we do that. United’s next match is against Middlesbrough in the League Cup and an ideal point in which to rest him.
Rooney will be back though. He is a champion and champions always rise after a setback. At the moment, the scrutiny on England’s captain is almost obscene. One wonders if this is a result of the pressure applied by the fierce competition for the television rights and the expensive new deals.
Because the narrative around Wayne now is worthy of a soap opera. As supporters, we should just support the team.
That includes the people who are playing in it.
Happy Birthday Wayne
Follow Mark on www.twitter.com/markjpayne