Getty Images

Wayne Rooney

Derby County, 2020-

When Wayne Rooney left Everton to join MLS side D.C. United in the summer of 2018, the assumption in his homeland was that he would likely never return to English football. However, after just a year and a half – and some memorable goals – in the American capital, Derby County snapped up the chance to bring the Manchester United legend back to England. At 34 years of age, he has proved more than capable of playing in the second tier – but he is also offering extra value by combining his playing duties with a part-time coaching role.

“Wayne provides quality, a class player, he has character and can also provide a link between the technical staff and the players,” said Derby manager Phillip Cocu. “When we discuss options on the pitch before the game, I only have to wave and call his name and he gives something extra to us. The more he works with us, the more his influence grows.”

Tactical analysis
At his peak, Rooney was a central part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s sensational counter-attacking Manchester United teams that dominated the Premier League. Later, as explosive power faded from his game, Rooney adapted and withdrew into a deeper position.

By the time he won his fifth and final Premier League title with the club in 2012/13, he was very much a number 10, playing behind Robin van Persie to great effect. As time passed, he dropped deeper still, spending much of his final season in the Premier League playing in central midfield for Everton. Despite playing as a centre-forward in his two seasons in America, he has played solely in midfield since returning to England.

It has always felt like a natural progression. Even at the height of his goalscoring powers, Rooney always wanted to come looking for the ball. He was never a striker who played on the shoulder of the last defender, and he ultimately struggled with the pace of the Premier League in tight spaces high up the pitch.

He has long preferred to have play in front of him, and he now enjoys more time on the ball in deeper positions. He has always been such an intelligent player that it was never going to take him long to adapt to a new position.

He is constantly on the lookout for space and moves cleverly to find gaps in midfield. His vast experience higher up the pitch has helped him here as he scans regularly, looking over both shoulders as he moves around the centre of the pitch (below), checking for teammates and identifying where the space is – just as all the world’s best central midfielders do.

Earlier in his career, Rooney’s clever movement helped dismantle compact defensive lines to create scoring opportunities. Now, he does his work deeper, and is more concerned with disrupting the midfield by looking to create passing lines to more explosive and agile attacking players. His movement asks difficult questions of his opponents; moving diagonally away from the centre of the pitch means his marker has to decide whether to go with him – and open up a passing line to a forward – or leave him to receive a pass to feet and with space to turn and face goal.

Rooney has both the vision and the technique to play a wide range of passes. He is particularly effective playing long, direct balls, often taking up a quarterback-like role to play passes that eliminate opponents quickly. His legs might have slowed down, but his mind is as quick as ever – he shows this regularly by launching long passes forward that set attacks on their way.

Role at Derby
Since joining Derby, Rooney has played as one of the defensive midfield two and as the number 10 in the 4-2-3-1 formation that Cocu prefers, as well as on the left side of a midfield three in a 4-3-3 and – at home against weaker opposition – as one of a central midfield two in a 4-4-2. While he naturally gets into more attacking positions when playing behind the striker, his main role in every position remains to provide a link between midfield and attack.

He is always progressive with his passing and looks to help the team get forward swiftly when the opportunity presents itself – usually through longer balls to switch play, but also through shorter, fizzed passes to release a teammate into space. He spends most of his time on the left side of central midfield; Cocu instructs him to drop into the space on the left side of the centre-backs to form a back three while the full-backs push on to provide more options in attack. Rooney then has the ability to play a direct pass to the right-back – usually the hugely exciting teenager Jayden Bogle – in space (above).

In Derby’s 4-2-3-1, when the full-backs push forward and the wingers move inside, it is Rooney’s job as the deep, ball-playing central midfielder to provide a reassuring presence at the base of midfield through which possession can be recycled. He does this well, and he is also capable of offering a passing option even when he is under pressure. His frequent scanning and assessment of the picture around him allows him to retain possession in crowded areas.

When Rooney gets further forward, he still tends to do most of his work in an inside-left position, providing support for the left-winger – the right-footed Tom Lawrence – if he decides to check back on to his stronger foot and can’t deliver a cross himself. Rooney can provide crosses into the box from his deeper position and has enjoyed some success dinking clever passes over the top of a deep-set defence into the path of forward runners down the right (above).

Rooney has long been a player who relies on his technique, so it is no surprise that his development into a deep-lying central midfielder proved successful. His vast experience is also adding plenty more to Cocu’s Derby side; while he is still showing that he is a more than capable footballer, this also looks like a positive start to his coaching career.

Wayne Rooney

Coach watch: Marcelo Bielsa

Leeds’ Marcelo Bielsa has been so influential that Mauricio Pochettino, Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone have benefitted from his influence. We assess his methods
Gary Rowett

Quick learner

Former Birmingham City, Derby County and Stoke City manager Gary Rowett on the steep learning curve of his first job as number one at Burton Albion

Tactical analysis: Derby 0 Manchester United 3

Manchester United reached the FA Cup quarter-finals with victory over Derby, and Wayne Rooney. We assess both teams’ performances