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Rooney’s worries on a carefree night

As Manchester United eased through Monday’s second half against Aston Villa en route to their title triumph, a story-within-a-story played out on the Old Trafford pitch. It starred Wayne Rooney and it may turn out to be the big story at the club this summer.

While the 27-year-old was being lauded around the world for two stunning 30-yard passes in the first half – the second of which led to Robin van Persie scoring the best goal I have ever personally witnessed at that ground – there were some who had misgivings about Rooney’s midfield role.

Alan Curbishley was one. The former Charlton and West Ham manager was alongside me in thepress seats for the game and he noted very early on in the match that Rooney appeared to be struggling to catch up to its tempo. According to “Curbs”, Rooney looked heavy legged and it was obvious he was off-the-pace in the deeper-lying role.

Of course the England star still has the quality to do what he did when Villa lost possession and he had the time and room to fire those imperious early passes. Yet even by the end of the half, those cross-field balls were falling short of their mark and Rooney appeared to be chugging along, well behind the play as Shinji Kagawa skipped away up-field, sending Ryan Giggs in down the left to set up van Persie’s third goal.

Not long after the start of the second half, it was obvious that Alan wasn’t the only experienced manager to be questioning Rooney’s effectiveness. For the first time in the game, Sir Alex Ferguson left the dugout for the technical area and then proceeded to bellow non-stop instructions at his number 10, as United were pinned back in their half by Villa’s greater urgency.

Rooney, to his credit, showed nothing but willingness to carry out his manager’s instructions. Yet Sir Alex couldn’t hide his frustration as Rooney’s excellent central midfield partner Michael Carrick was continually left to tidy up or to make himself available for passes in Rooney’s absence. The manager decided enough was enough on the 70-minute mark and replaced the “midfielder” with 39-year-old converted winger Ryan Giggs.

Again, one has to remember Manchester United won this game 3-0 and that Rooney played a memorable part in one of the goals but, with respect to Aston Villa, there will be tougher games both domestically and in Europe next season and United do not look as if they have solved their midfield problem by dropping Rooney deep.

Adding to the complication is the fact that Sir Alex is said to be a big fan of Shinji Kagawa, the player who occupies Rooney’s position in “the hole” behind Van Persie when Rooney is absent. The manager has publicly said he thinks the Japanese player is coming on nicely and there have been signs this season that he brings a speed of thought and creativity to United’s play that might see them once again challenge for the Champions League.

Robin van Persie is undeniably the most important player at the club and there are wide men – Valencia and Ashley Young - who will probably do better next season than they have in this one. There is also an incredibly patient young man called Javier Hernandez who, for the time being, seems happy for his manager to praise his contribution even if he does not always pick him.

Then there is Danny Welbeck, who also appears to be throwing up a whole host of questions about his best position on the pitch. So where does that leave Rooney, a player who has been involved in 22 of United’s league goals this season?

A fortnight ago, Sir Alex was quick to shoot down those speculative stories from France about a summer move to PSG but he offered no news on a Rooney contract extension. A reported Manchester United transfer target, Borussia Dortmund’s Robert Lewandoski, was even said recently to be delaying any decision until Rooney’s position at United became clearer.

The England striker’s future is the talk of the game right now. Three Lions legend Alan Shearer recently wondered publicly whether Rooney might need to sit down with his advisors and consider moving this summer.

“I have always said that Rooney would be the best player on the team wherever he plays, bar in goal,” Shearer told The Sun newspaper.

“Even that is being tested now. He has gone from the main front-man to the supporting role in behind Van Persie, to out wide and a deep-lying midfield role. You have to ask yourself whether this would happen to someone like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.”

It is fitting that Shearer invoked the names of the two finest talents in the world because it was not that long ago that Rooney was spoken about in similar terms. At 27, he still has so much to offer and can be expected to set a new all-time goal-scoring record for England at some point before he retires.

He will continue to be a world-class striker and a prolific scorer. That’s why it seemed somehow wrong that his obvious struggle to adapt to an unfamiliar role should have cast a slight shadow over Monday night’s otherwise brilliant occasion for Manchester United.

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