The boy done wrong again

October 14, 2010 § 1 Comment

Wayne Rooney is the golden boy of English football. Don’t kill him because you will need him. — Sven-Goran Eriksson

How good is Wayne Rooney? After another disappointing performance from England’s stuttering national side, and their talismanic striker, the strident voices of the “overrated, overhyped” chorus are starting to drown out those who maintain that he is, and remains, “world-class”.

It is almost facile to have to point out that Rooney, as a player, is clearly better than he was on Tuesday, just as it’s banal to then have to acknowledge that he’s not in his best form. What’s interesting is the tendency of football watchers to relate each specific game to their understanding of a player’s overall ability, but then modify that understanding based on the game just gone. A player has a poor game, he’s useless; a player has a good game, his ability shoots back up. But if Rooney had scored a blinding hat-trick on Tuesday night, would it have made him any better a player?

One game does not a bad player make. Nor, despite the clamour, does one bad World Cup plus one disappointing start to the season. The tendency for strikers is to look in the goals column to assess their worth, though as Rooney has only had one season as the goalscoring focus of Manchester United, and as some goals are bigger than others, this would be simplistic. (For United, across all competitions, he averages just under a goal every two games.) What matters for Rooney – as for any player – is whether or not he makes the team better or worse for his presence.

Valeriy Lobanovskyi characterised a football match as two competing sub-systems of eleven elements, the most effective emerging the winner. Crucially, however, he noted that (as Jonathan Wilson puts it) “the efficiency of the sub-system is greater than the sum of the efficiencies of the elements that comprise it”. In other words, players within the team improve each other to standards above and beyond the sum of their individual talent. The trick with building a team, therefore, is not only to find talented footballers but to find footballers that improve one another. Kevin Phillips & Niall Quinn. Leo Messi & Dani Alves. Dwight Yorke & Andy Cole:

The question is, therefore: does Rooney’s presence with the sub-system that is Manchester United’s team benefit the sub-system as a whole. Are United better with him than without him? Looking at the last six seasons, it’s not immediately apparent that they are: with Rooney, United win 66.67% of their games; without him, 65.75%, a negligible difference.

There’s a significant caveat to the figures though, which is that Rooney doesn’t tend to play in cup games that United would generally expect to win. In the League Cup, for instance, Rooney’s played against Aston Villa, Chelsea (twice) and Manchester City (twice), but been left out of the side against Barnsley, Barnet, Coventry City, Crewe Alexandra (twice), Crystal Palace, QPR and Scunthorpe United. In Europe, Rooney has missed home and away victories over FC Debreceni, and any number of end-of-group-stage dead rubbers.

Looking at just the league results – those games where if he’s fit, he starts – there is a larger difference. United win 70.37% of their league games with Rooney, but only 64.1% without. With Rooney, United take an average of 2.28 points from each league game; without him, it falls to 2.13. Over a season, that’s a drop of 5.7 points: Manchester United’s last three titles have come by margins of four points, two points, and six points.

So that’s how good he is: good enough to play a significant part in determining whether or not Manchester United win the league. Nebulous theorising about what exactly ‘world-class’ means and whether he’s got it are neither here nor there: you’re good if you help your team win, you’re very good if you do that at the highest level, you’re really good if you do it consistently. That’s the real point of a player.

Which is why United need him back: focused and sharp in mind and body. After all, regardless of how good he is in himself, as a footballer or as a man, United – as a sub-system, as a team – suffer without him.

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