This piece originally appeared on www.sabotagetimes.com.
Rare is the time when something said by Alan Shearer leads to thoughts of anything bar a single act of swift and merciless anti-Geordie violence, but his prolonged attempts to end Adel Taarabt’s career in England have got me thinking that perhaps QPR’s maverick Moroccan should play for Manchester United next season. Not only that: his arrival should be coupled with Wayne Rooney’s immediate exit.
Now, hold on a second. Put down the pitchforks and flaming torches, lower your guns and hear me out.
If there is one thing wrong with modern football, it’s that fans no longer enjoy going to watch live matches. If their side is winning, it’s tempered by the fact that the cost of their ticket means they attended the game instead of buying food that week. If their side is losing, then the world can go to hell in a handbasket for all they care. Nothing else matters. This is profoundly incorrect: if results were all that mattered then the FTSE 100 would have a weekly highlights show instead of football.
The reason we love football is because it is beautiful. Sport is an entirely superficial escape from the humdrum existence most people endure and a chance to experience something that is beyond a majority of us: genuine astonishment. The reason football succeeds where other sports of equal organisational simplicity fail is because the ways in which we can be amazed by it are almost innumerable. We can all recall numerous occasions on which we have sat watching football and wondered, for one reason or another, “how did he/she/they do that?”
When Wayne Rooney sat out Manchester United’s recent Round of 16 second leg tie against Real Madrid, the world’s media was once again deluged with revisionist assessments of his career and varying predictions for his future. As is always the case when this happens, most of the appraisals contradicted each other. ‘He is a victim of his own versatility!’ hollered some. ‘He is too selfish!’ cried others. ‘He is finished at Old Trafford!’ yelled the loudest and most eye-catching.
Rooney has always provoked this diversity of opinion. Even now, aged 27 and with over 500 senior appearances to his name, we still don’t really know what his best position is.
There are those who see him as an archetypal number ten, a player of technical skill and attacking force that can both score and create at will. Others see him as a poacher who can play a bit but probably not as much as he thinks he can. A tiny minority see him as the most complete footballer in the world; the master of all he surveys and the able doer of any job on the pitch – sadly, this latter group is the face of British football’s television coverage.
None of these views is really right. The inconvenient truth that few will readily accept is that Rooney doesn’t have a position. His skill set is so uneven that whichever strength his manager chooses to accentuate, a clear and obvious weakness becomes ready for opponents to exploit. He scores a lot of goals but he doesn’t really know how or why. In that innate athletic abilities have brought him fame and fortune despite an obvious lack of intelligence and application, Rooney is basically a Scouse Forrest Gump.
Indeed, to describe Rooney as a number ten is an insult to all real trequartistas of eras past, present and future. Technically, he isn’t good enough. As anyone who presses him finds out, his left foot is only for standing on. He cannot run with the ball. His passing, portrayed as one of his greatest assets, is predictable, devoid of flair and easily intercepted. Most damningly of all, his first touch is reliably heavier than Slayer’s discography.
As a striker, Rooney’s positioning, while greatly improved in recent years, remains subpar for a player of his standing. His shooting technique is unorthodox at best and more often than not downright terrible: he has a bizarre method of hooking shots with the ball at his side rather than striking them with his laces, his body over the ball. Occasionally he gets it right but not often enough. His predatory instinct is admirable but he is hardly as intelligent a forward as Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimović or even Nicklas Bendtner.
Perhaps the biggest Rooney myth is that he is selfless. We have all heard, numerous times, that Rooney will play anywhere for the good of the team. He will do any job if asked. He just loves playing football. When Sir Alex Ferguson benched him against Real Madrid, he busted that myth, and with good cause.
In the 2011 Champions League final, Rooney was given one job: mark Sergio Busquets. The logic behind the plan was obvious: as United’s second striker in a 4-4-1-1 system, he would be the man nearest to Barça’s pivote, the player who begins and revives each of their attacking moves and the player that makes tiki-taka possible. Stop Busquets, goes the theory, and you stop Barcelona. Xavi, Iniesta and Messi are brilliant with the ball but cut off their supply and you stand a chance.
What is remembered about that game – besides the fact that United were for a second time absolutely rogered by a rampant Blaugrana – is that Rooney scored a genuinely brilliant equalising goal towards the end of the first half.
Generally forgotten is that Rooney so flagrantly disobeyed Ferguson by not marking Busquets that the Scot spent much of the first half bellowing with rage in Rooney’s direction. On one occasion, Rooney’s manager had to be physically prevented from entering the field of play to remonstrate with him. Busquets was always available to receive and play the ball and Barcelona’s flow was never interrupted. Thanks to Rooney, Manchester United never stood a chance.
Thirteen months later, Rooney was given the same task in England’s Euro 2012 quarter final against Italy. As England’s second striker, he would be the nearest man to Italy’s playmaker, Andrea Pirlo. Ignoring the lesson of the Champions League final, Roy Hodgson picked him in the defensive forward role and told him to mark Pirlo, and found to his cost that Rooney isn’t the defensive Stakhanovite his reputation suggests. Like Busquets, Pirlo was constantly free and unopposed in possession and consequently his side dominated.
Sir Alex Ferguson has never forgotten the lessons of these games and will probably never trust Rooney in the defensive forward role again.
To summarise, Rooney has to go for three reasons. First and foremost: he is not a beautiful player. Second: his strengths and weakness make his inclusion inherently disruptive from a tactical point of view. Third: worse than being untrustworthy, Rooney is fundamentally dishonest – he looks like he’s doing defensive work, but he’s not.
Adel Taarabt presents no such worries. A true technical virtuoso, his mastery of the ball is a sight to behold and enough to make watching his team play enjoyable by itself. His first touch is featherweight. His passing is crisp, perfectly weighted and penetrative. His technique when striking a ball, be it dead, moving or bouncing, is exemplary. Best of all, he has an unquenchable thirst for flair and a personal commitment to succeeding via the most ludicrously ambitious means possible.
Tactically, Taarabt only has the skills to play in one position but that’s fine. He doesn’t pretend to be anything he’s not. He is only interested in receiving the ball and doing something preposterously gorgeous. If the opportunity to do so does not present itself, he will recycle possession and take up a position in which the chances of success will be greater. Once there, he will demand the ball and begin the process again.
His flagrant disregard for defensive work makes him an honest player. Unlike Rooney, you won’t find him haring around the pitch looking busy but ultimately achieving nothing and vacating his position in the process. You don’t give Taarabt defensive duties because you know from the outset that he won’t bother with them. You know where you stand.
Of course, if Manchester United were to sell Wayne Rooney and buy Adel Taarabt they would be trading down: I am neither blind nor deluded. However, they would immediately become more watchable. They would probably win the majority of their games 1-0 instead of 3-0 but Taarabt’s showmanship would mean that the crowd enjoyed themselves a lot more than they do watching an oafish, potato-headed man-child making a mockery of the traditions of the number ten shirt. In the end, football is about beauty and fun and Manchester United haven’t been beautiful or fun for a long time.
If nothing else will sway you toward my way of thinking, just imagine the look on Alan Shearer’s face when he hears that Taarabt is replacing Rooney. Come on. You know it makes sense.