After having spent only one year away from English football, Wayne Rooney is back in England following a shock move to Championship side, Derby County. Before moving back, Rooney was in America for two seasons playing for DC United but he has joined Derby on an 18-month contract as a player-coach. The 34-year-old, ex-England captain has provided lots of experience for The Rams this season. He is England’s (53) and Manchester United’s (253) top goal scorer and he is the second highest-capped player for the national team (120).
Overview and style of play
Derby play a 4-2-3-1 under Phillip Cocu. In this system, Rooney has been deployed as the central defensive midfielder twice, the attacking centre midfielder five times, and he has spent most of his appearances at central midfield where he has started eight games. This has accumulated to 976 minutes in the Championship and 360 minutes in the FA Cup.
Throughout Rooney’s career, he has slowly moved into a deeper role, becoming a deep-lying playmaker. He started out as a striker at Everton where he played 33 league matches but in his final season for Manchester United, he played 25 games at centre midfield in the 2016/17 season. On the other hand, recently at DC United Rooney revived his career in attack as he made 50 appearances up front where he finished as DC’s top goal scorer across 2018-2019 with 23 goals.
With this new, slightly deeper role, Rooney is sitting just in front of his centre-backs. We can see in the heat map above his average position this season. By starting deeper it allows him to pick up the ball from his teammates and spray out long diagonal passes to the flanks. This style suits Rooney perfectly as he isn’t the same player as he once was when he was scoring and assisting 10+ in both categories (2010/11, 2012/13 and 2013/14) but he can still be effective for his team, as I will now go on to analyse.
Within Derby’s attacking system, there is a strong emphasis on building up quick attacks starting from the defensive third, as they are averaging 72.95 progressive passes per game. Rooney drops deep into his own half to receive the ball in the space behind the opposing pressing lines.
In the image below, we can see that he has found a big pocket of space in-between his centre-backs and he has time to pick out his free teammates. Rooney rarely carries the ball as he is only tallying 0.4 progressive runs per game. Instead, he will opt to use his range of passes to get the ball through the thirds.
Rooney has acquired great skills over the years. His main ones that are still in his game today is his vision, press resistance, and technique to find an open player before he has even received the ball. He already has an understanding of his options and how he will execute it before the ball has arrived at his feet.
In the image below, Rooney prepares himself by quickly looking over his shoulder and analysing his teammates’ positioning. He often looks for the long diagonal pass to the other side of the pitch and we can see him already making the decision to go there before he has even got the ball. This pass is highly effective as it stretches the opponents across the pitch and creates gaps in the defence, which his teammates can exploit. Currently, he is averaging 6.94 long passes per game with a 57.3% success rate, this shows his clear intent to perform this pass regularly.
You could say Rooney is playing the “quarterback” role for Derby this season – he must have watched too much NFL when he was in Washington. However, by Rooney dropping in deep this allows Derby’s full-backs to push higher up as they’re defensively covered by him due to his positioning. Plus, with his vast passing range, he can easily pick them out on the sidelines.
In the image above, we can see Rooney level with the centre-back. By him dropping this deep it has let the opponents overload the central area of the pitch. However, on the flanks, Derby have the numerical advantage due to the full-backs supporting the attacking players in higher up areas. It is clear Derby trust Rooney in this role and they want to play through him, as he receives the ball 31.55 times on average per game.
Rooney needs the help of his full-backs to create his space. This is evident as we can see in the image below how Andre Wisdom is as high as the opponent’s defensive line. In effect, the opponents have all squeezed together due to this movement and in result, this gives Rooney time and space to pick his pass.
In a recent game against Sheffield Wednesday which Rooney took part in, we can see in the image below, the high amount of times they looked to attack on the right side (13) and even on the left-hand side (seven) compared to only five times down the middle.
One weakness to Derby’s full-backs’ pushing up is that they are vulnerable in the channels if they lose possession. Rooney is there for cover, however, he doesn’t make many interceptions (1.35) nor many sliding tackles (1.01). This is somewhat down to the Championship being a physically demanding league and he is ageing. Notably, Rooney is losing the ball 7.89 times per game, which is a high amount but due to his audacious long balls, it is a relatively average score. However, 32.5% of the times come in his own half and as we have seen he is either the last man back or one of few who are covering and this leaves him exposed.
If the opponents try to stop the source where the ball is starting, it draws defenders into Rooney and frees up his teammates. In the image above, we can see five Stoke players surrounding Rooney, yet, he still finds an opening to play through Jayden Bogle who is exploiting the space which Rooney has created with his positioning. In this possession, Rooney plays a perfectly weighted through ball to Bogle, who finishes it into the top left corner.
As stated earlier, Rooney has played four games this season in the Championship at his more accustomed central attacking midfield role. When he is playing further up the pitch he finds himself in between the lines where he can pick up the ball to create chances for his teammates.
Against Fulham, Rooney supported Martyn Waghorn excellently. He was getting inside the lines of the midfield and defence countlessly, then Rooney was able to play through balls to his teammates. This allowed Waghorn to play off Rooney and make runs in behind the defence. In the image below, Rooney is observing his surroundings before he tries to link up with Waghorn, this skill is implemented both in a deep role and higher up the pitch.
Finally, another way that Rooney creates chances is from set-pieces. Throughout Rooney’s career, he has been outstanding on set pieces and he has certainly brought this to Derby. In the image below, Rooney beautifully inswings a free-kick which Jack Marriott tucks away.
His delivery of the ball is textbook as it has enough power for his teammates to attack, mixed with pinpoint accuracy.
More so, free-kicks are one area Derby need to improve as they’re shooting 20.7% from 2.76 free-kicks per game, which tells us they aren’t threatening their opponents in good opportunities. Statically speaking, this an area that Rooney has raised at Derby, as they only scored seven goals from set plays in 27 games in the league before his arrival but he has scored or assisted four set pieces in his first 15 games for the club.
Ultimately, by being moved to centre-midfield at Manchester United, it forced Rooney out of the club as he wanted to remain in an attacking position, but now he has accepted his new role at Derby. Nevertheless, he has made an immediate effect as Derby were struggling at the start of the season when they were positioned 17th before Rooney’s arrival.
Since his introduction, they have steadily moved to up to 12th, which is only five points off the playoffs. We have seen this transformation with many other players as Gerrard went down this exact route. Moreover, we will see Rooney follow Gerrard’s path further into management soon as he is already coaching for the Championship side.