After being a scapegoat for the failures of Manchester United and a short-lived homecoming on Merseyside, Wayne Rooney made his way to the States. Following the footsteps of other England legends David Beckham and Frank Lampard. England’s greatest ever goalscorer would land with the four-time MLS champions DC United.
Building around Rooney
Wayne Rooney has played in a multitude of roles and positions throughout his illustrious career. Featuring as a false nine, striker, attacking midfielder and even in the centre of the midfield.
“I know I’m at my best when I’m playing consistently”
Most modern forwards and midfielders are tasked with athletically demanding roles in systems. But at the ripe age of 33, Rooney is unable to offer the responsibilities of a pressing forward or a midfielder. Ben Olsen would have to adapt his tactics in order to get the best out of his talisman and keep him on the pitch as much as possible.
The system, personnel, and tactics on display are specifically structured around him. Aiming to amplify his abilities to get the best out of everyone around him and nullify the limitations of his game.
Through analysis, we can see Wayne Rooney’s role in DC United’s system is of a false nine. He’s scored 11 goals this season, the fourth-most in MLS through his clinical finishing and set-piece threat. Olsen’s elected to deploy the 3-4-3 and 4-2-3-1 shapes.
Influence in possession
DC United do not intensively press instead retreating into their own half into a low block. This makes transitioning into attack difficult. Rooney’s commitment to the team off the ball can’t be underestimated as he wins 2.1 ground duels per game. However not pressing in the opposition half most importantly affords Rooney energy to spend instead while in possession. It also allows him to consistently play large minutes for DC. Rooney has played on average 85 minutes per game.
Linkup play by a false nine can sometimes be overestimated in the modern game. But Wayne Rooney excels due to his undeniable quality and the ideologies set in place. Rooney’s constant involvement in DC’s play can be highlighted by the statistic that he averages 39.8 passes per game.
DC United in all of their formations used to play with a double pivot. So Rooney dropping deep to help create solutions during buildup is vital. Rooney’s great passing quality helps them effectively transition into the opposition half via quick short passes in tight spaces playing through opposition pressure. He has the second-highest pass success of DC’s forwards.
Rooney looks for space between opposition lines in all phases of play throughout all the thirds. Below is a pass map showcasing Rooney’s activeness on the pitch.
When in space he can use his passing range to bypass the middle third. Pinging long balls to wide players in space. He’s made 4.4 long balls per game 70% of them being accurate. This can be a very useful option for DC as they’ve struggled to control the game through short passes this season.
A focal point in attack
Rooney was never known for his speed and certainly is not now. To make up for his lack of speed he is surrounded by it. Wide players Paul Arriola, Luciano Accosta and Lucas Rodriguez surround the Englishmen offering rapid pace.
When Rooney drops deep this creates space in the forward areas for these players. This off the ball movement creates disruption in opposition defensive shape. As it will shift players out of their normal areas of operation and create dynamic attacking sequences for DC.
Below is a sequence from DC’s most recent game vs the Philidelphia Union. DC looked to transition out of their own half. Rooney recognized the highlighted space between the defensive and midfield lines. Him dropping back dragged a centre-back out of position. This, in turn, created space for Acosta who would receive a one-touch pass over the top.
In the opposition half, they use Rooney as a focal point. Rooney has a 70% passing accuracy in the opposition half. Rooney stays in between the opposition’s centre-backs. The wide forwards come inside playing in between the full-back and centre-back. This creates positional superiority as the centre-backs are tasked with making a decision on covering the space or Rooney.
When the wide forwards come inside, they look to make quick combinations with him. These quick combinations open space for shooting opportunities at the top of the box or in the half-spaces. Rooney has made 2.7 key passes per game and has six assists, what’s the most of the team. Rooney’s relationship with his surrounding attacking players is very important because support form the wing-backs is slim. As they’re tasked primarily with cutting out counter-attacking opportunities.
One player in particular that has enjoyed linking with Rooney has been Luciano Accosta. Accosta has played as a second striker and a wide forward around Rooney. His speed and passing ability matchup with Rooney’s holdup play. Against the Chicago Fire, the Argentine made 14 passing combinations with Rooney. Nobody passed to the Englishman more times. Their combination is a common theme of DC’s play this season.
When played as a second striker, Acosta drops deep with Rooney and they look to help progress the ball forward through the middle third into the attacking third.
Before Rooney’s arrival at the eastern conference club, Accosta’s link-up play was rated as a 40 by Smarterscout. Since then an analysis of Smarterscouts’ data shows improvement since Rooney’s arrival progressing to 47 then to 57 in 2019. Showcasing how Rooney’s play has improved those around him.
Given DC United have mostly played on the counter-attack this season only averaging 47% possession. Creating goals directly and goal-scoring opportunities through set-pieces have been a big part of their game. Wayne Rooney’s corner delivery can be a particular highlight as 12.5% of DC’s corners have resulted in shots. More importantly, they are directly resulting in end product on the scoresheet. As 39% of DC’s goals have come from set-pieces and penalties.
Rooney has scored six goals from the penalty spot and free kicks combined. His penalties and free kicks have proven to be a match deciding factor.
What are the problems with the Englishman’s game and how has it affected his team? DC United cannot effectively press teams during build-up phases. This eliminates their opportunity to win the ball in the opposition half.
In games where Rooney’s connection is served from the rest of the attack the black-and-red struggle to create chances. Teams have done this with great success. Putting out counter-attacking and transition attacking opportunities quickly through counter-pressing and astute defensive structure. DC United has the fourth least shots on target in the MLS.
When European players on the wrong side of their 30’s come to MLS most come into question regarding their value to that team. But through tactical analysis, you can uncover that Rooney is indeed one of MLS’ most valuable players.
Olsen’s tactics have been executed exceptionally well as Rooney is putting together an MVP Caliber season. Leading his team in goals and assists. But most importantly by building the team around Rooney, it has to lead them to the upper echelon of the eastern conference and making them favourites for the MLS Cup.
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