Manchester United’s nil-nil draws are starting to become a bit of a trademark of the team. The more experienced fan can now look at the first five minutes of any Manchester United game and be able to foresee if the team will struggle. The characteristics of these games are unmistakable; the players cannot string two passes together, Rio and Vidic see more of the ball than Ronaldo and there is a huge void in the supposed palace of the midfielders.
However, Manchester United is not held in every game in which the team struggles. Actually, most of the time, there is a spark somewhere in the team, as if there is one player who managed to keep himself off the missus the night before the match. There is usually a player who can provide the moment of brilliance needed to win a game. If that fails, then some constant pressure will undo most teams as it undid Sunderland last week. But sometimes there is no constant pressure, no stroke of luck and no moment of brilliance.
It was that way when United drew at Tottenham on Saturday. Ronaldo and co had most of the possession, played large parts of the game in the opposition half and managed to ask Goalkeeper Calamity II, Heurelho Gomes, to put in one reasonable save — from a free kick in injury time.
As I was watching the game, the one thing that was painfully clear was that there was absolutely no cohesion in Manchester United’s attacks. There was no go-to man, there was nobody to take the ball from an ineffective Michael Carrick and distribute it wisely, there was very little pressure on the Tottenham defenders and there was no ingeniousness in attack. Every single move broke down in the same way — incomplete passes trying to feed the runs of midfielders or a disturbingly ineffective Carlos Tevez.
Looking at the above, it is plain to see what was missing from Manchester United’s team on the day: quality. No. Beside that. They needed Wayne Rooney — absent through his own folly — to string the attacks together, to create more opportunities and to put pressure on the Tottenham back-four.
History does tell us that Rooney is usually the solution to these games. The perfect example of this is the game against Aston Villa in the FA Cup at the beginning of this calendar year. On that occasion, Rooney came off the bench — with the score tied at zero and United looking much as they looked on Saturday — and the team started to click instantly.
Other occasions when his presence made a significant difference can include the game against Bolton this season and the one against Portsmouth in the FA Cup two seasons ago (the one where he did his Cantona impression). Of course, occasions when Rooney comes off the bench are not common given that he almost always starts (if available), but goal-less draws tend to avoid him, on the domestic scene, at least.
The point I am trying to make is that Rooney adds to the team what it was looking for in the frustration that was the encounter against Tottenham. In games in which United do lose or are held to a nil-nil draw, if Rooney takes part, it is usually due to great misfortune that United did not score (Aston Villa a few weeks ago, Portsmouth in the FA Cup last season). If he does not play, the team generally looks impotent (Manchester City in February, Tottenham on Saturday).
In other words he is the link in the team; the person that makes it click and the one to whom United fans and players owe much of their team’s recent success to. He might not be seen by the average fan as a player in the class of Cristiano Ronaldo, but we must consider that Ronaldo (as well as most of the rest of the attacking force on that team) would not be half the player that he is without Rooney to support him.
So, for all the missed passes, the bad tackles, the hot-headedness, the lack of control, the Liverpoolian accent, inability to finish and all of his innumerable vices, we must consider that Wayne Rooney, though not the most glorified player on that team, is the most important one as far as Manchester United’s offensive department is concerned. He might not win FIFA Player of the Year or Ballon D’Or, but if you have been following United closely, you know: he’d deserve them.