Manchester United’s captain is suffering from a surfeit of teamwork
Wayne Rooney can’t seem to catch a break these days. He’s over the hill, the world has determined. While his misfiring teammates Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba starred in Sunday’s 3–1 victory over Swansea, Rooney was just fine. He assisted Zlatan’s third and otherwise wasn’t too much of a liability. This is what a good day now looks like for Wayne Rooney. Alexi Lalas recently proclaimed he wouldn’t be good enough to play in MLS. For a while I thought the same thing — when a striker loses his pace he can usually call it a day — but I’m here to present a second possibility: the burden of the captain’s armband has hurt his game.
Rooney’s decline has mainly coincided with his appointment as captain of Manchester United and England in 2014. The other factor here is his age: like everyone else, Wayne Rooney is older now than he was in 2014. I’m not about to argue Father Time hasn’t played a role in Wayne Rooney’s struggles, but that doesn’t have to be the only explanation. I think Rooney lost some of his game’s main attributes when he took on the responsibilities associated with wearing the captain’s armband.
When you assume the privilege of the armband, you have to assume the responsibility that comes with it. You now, officially, need to put the team before yourself. You have more to worry about than your own performance and playing time.
I felt myself change when I was appointed team captain. I made my career — obviously not comparable to Rooney’s, but a career I’m proud of nonetheless — as a brash, intense worker. I tried as hard as I could and told everyone in my way to go fuck themselves. If you couldn’t deal with my intensity, that was your problem. I yelled at coaches, teammates, management, and anyone who got in my way while I was in the zone. Obviously I’m not proud of all of the things I have done, but I needed to be intense in order to have a chance as a professional. I couldn’t overthink it or waver. With the good comes the bad, and usually the benefits outweighed the problems. Teammates always liked me and wanted me on their side.
Every team needs a couple guys to be crazy, but you can’t have 20 of them.
When I became captain, though, I felt the need to set an example. Every team needs a couple guys to be crazy, but you can’t have 20 of them. I had to be a good soldier and set a tone for everyone to conduct themselves. I couldn’t yell at the coach anymore or two-foot a bratty teenager to teach him a lesson. I lost my edge and, consequently, I didn’t play as well.
Rooney, I think, falls into the same category. He hasn’t played as well since becoming a captain. More so, he hasn’t shown the same anger or intensity. He seems like he’s always holding something back; you can see the wheels turning in his head. He hesitates. Most attackers, particularly ones as energetic and brash as Rooney, need to just let it flow. They need to feel free to play and accept any mistakes that happen because they know eventually they will be the star.
In his individual decisions, you can see Rooney trying to be too much of a team player. Only his long-range blast against Fenerbahce on Thursday offered a reminder of what made him Wayne Rooney The Star in the first place. He didn’t defer. He didn’t hesitate. He saw a chance and he went for it:
You don’t want every player on the team taking that kind of shot. As captain you want to — nay, need to — set a tone. But Wayne Rooney is at his best when he does take that shot — or at least thinks he can take it. Usually the best players are the best because they think they are. Sometimes teams need their star to think like a star.
When a player gets benched like Rooney has been, he needs to be pissed off. He needs to hate everyone and be willing to take every shot or break legs to get back into the lineup. You can’t take on that “I’m gonna get mine” mentality, though, when you’re captain. Again, you need to set the example. It’s hard to get out of the funk. You have a fire raging inside of you, but you can’t let it out. You feel trapped.
Being captain of a club you care about is the highest privilege a professional player can hold. As always, though, with the blessing comes a curse. When I watch Rooney play, I can’t help but think the armband is restricting him. He is likely on the decline as a player, but the armband may be hurting him more than age right now.