There have been few players who have stolen the back page headlines quite like Cristiano Ronaldo. This season has seen the Portuguese international put in a series of spellbinding performances, scoring an astounding 27 goals in the process.
However, in the background of the media frenzy surrounding the Manchester United No. 7 stands a figure that has been just as crucial to the Red Devil’s progress this term.
In Wayne Rooney, Manchester United can point to the source of their inspiration, and the heartbeat of the side. This state of affairs has seen the fiery Liverpudlian play just as big a role as the Red Devils flying winger in shaping United’s results, even though he has scored fewer than of Ronaldo's goals.
Indeed, the story of Manchester United’s season can be told by the statistic that in the four games that they have lost in the Premier League so far, Wayne Rooney has been absent from them all.
A broken metatarsal received in the opening day fixture against Reading kept Rooney out of the first month of season, and thus the first of two derby defeats to Manchester City. November saw an ankle damaged in training lead to another spell on the sidelines and a further defeat away to Bolton Wanderers.
Another Rooney absence, this time due to a virus, saw him miss United’s 2-1 defeat to bogey team West Ham United, whilst a ridiculous dive against Tottenham Hotspur resulted in a one match ban that left Rooney in the stands as Sven GÃ¶ran Erikkson’s Manchester City completed a famous double over their illustrious Mancunian rivals.
Rooney's impact can also be measured by the fact that during the 11 games that he has managed to miss this season, United have averaged only a paltry goal a game. When contrasted to the 57 goals in 23 games that a Rooney inspired Manchester United have scored, the difference is clear for all to see.
This difference in performance is further highlighted by United’s bluntness in front of goal in their four league defeats, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s headed goal against West Ham United and Michael Carrick’s last minute consolation against Manchester City being the only times that they managed to trouble the scoresheet.
But why has the presence of Wayne Rooney been such an important factor in Manchester United’s season when Cristiano Ronaldo has scored so many times?
It has been an obvious element of United’s attacking play that when Rooney has not played a distinct lack of energy and directness has been present. Indeed, in all of United’s defeats this season the displays have been insipid and distinctly un-inspiring, featuring wayward passes and moves that have fizzled out far too easily.
This is due to the fact that when Manchester United are without Rooney and his boundless energy, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo simply lack the spark to ignite Manchester United’s goal threat against compact and dogged opposition.
The continued absence of Louis Saha has also seen United resort to playing Carlos Tevez alone up front when Rooney has been missing, a role the diminutive Argentine is simply not cut out to perform.
Unlike Rooney, Tevez lacks the strength to be able to hold up the ball for oncoming midfielders, with the Argentine’s style of play revolving firmly around the beautiful interplay with a strike partner. This has seen United prove to be incapable of keeping hold of the ball around the opposition’s penalty area, and has made them a much simpler proposition to deal with.
Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to play his central midfielders in much deeper roles than in previous seasons has also compounded United’s difficulties when Rooney is missing, as Tevez has struggled badly for support, and led to him being easy pickings for dominant centre halves such as Manchester City’s Richard Dunne and Micah Richards.
Another important feature of Wayne Rooney’s personality is the ‘never say die’ approach he brings to the game. With Rooney emitting this desire to win from every pore of his body, he visibly inspires his United team mates to perform to their highest level.
When one compares this to the way that Cristiano Ronaldo behaves in the face of adversity, the contrast is remarkable. For whilst Rooney is capable of dragging his team mates along with him, producing spell binding moments of defiance such as his last minute winner against AC Milan in the Champions League last year, Cristiano Ronaldo in Sunday’s defeat to Manchester City seemed to just exacerbate the difficulties faced by the Red Devils. Too often he looked to the referee for non-existent free kicks and sauntered back from offside positions rather than concentrating on the job at hand. This was certainly not the inspirational showing that a nominee for world player of the year should exhibit.
It is an unarguable fact that Cristiano Ronaldo is a more naturally gifted footballer than Wayne Rooney. However, for United’s prospects for the rest of the season it is vital that the repeated injury and disciplinary problems that have struck Rooney with a worrying regularity must stop.
If this occurs, then the already-overflowing Manchester United trophy room can expect to see a few new additions to its impressive collection, undoubtedly inspired by their talismanic number 10. If not, a distinct sense of frustration at what could have been achieved will surely envelope all those associated with the club.