Wayne Rooney’s best years are behind him but he is still playing in the top flight. Is he worth his place? Can he go on at this level? I’ve taken a look at what it takes to play on past 30 at the top level and whether Wayne Rooney can continue to do so.
Wayne Rooney’s last two appearances against Manchester City and Liverpool have been considered by many as that of a fading player, well past his best. Substituted by Sam Allardyce early in both games has focused supporter and media minds on just how long he can go on at this level. Both his last two opponents are two very good teams admittedly but this is Wayne Rooney, both England’s and Manchester United’s leading goalscorer. This isn’t a new question of course. Well before the end of last season as a Manchester United player, serious questions were asked of Wayne Rooney’s ability to cope at the top level. Only five goals in 25 league appearances, a tendency to over hit set pieces, an increasing amount of misplaced passes and more than the occasional heavy touch ended his time at Old Trafford.
Return to Everton
A pay cut and return to his boyhood club split Evertonian’s opinion. Divided generally between those who were happy to see him back and those who weren’t For many different reasons fans were split. Many have never forgiven him for kissing his Man Utd badge in front of Everton fans at Goodison Park during a league match in 2008. Some seem happy to forgive, after all, he was goaded by fans intensely. He is also bringing his sons up to be Evertonians which hark back to his “Once a blue always a blue” persona. Will he be a good role model for young players making their way in the top flight? who knows!Sentiment has also been mentioned with some suggesting it Was Everton chairman Bill Kenwright’s emotional decision to bring him back. On an estimated salary of £150,000 per week, that’s some emotional attachment. The reasons fans are divided of his value are many, however it’s whether he is good enough was probably the biggest issue and one that’s come around once again.
Performance declines with age
Wayne is now 32 years old and past his peak. Numerous studies have been done on the ageing curve of footballers. The consensus appears to be that the normal peak for footballers is around the age of 26. Statistics of course can be made to prove anything but generally, players show a steep increase in improvement up to the age of 26 followed by a less steep decline. The position in the team of course has an effect on how long a players effectiveness lasts. Various studies have been done but it’s widely accepted that a footballers best playing years vary as follows:
Peak age | Peak years
Goalkeeper 29 | 24 – 33
Centre Back 27 | 23 – 30
Full back 26 | 22 – 31
Centre Midfield 25 | 22 – 31
Wide attacking midfield 25 | 21 – 30
Central attacking midfield 25 | 21 – 31
Striker 27 | 23 – 31
(from a study by espn.com 29th March 2017)
It’s well known that goalkeepers peak later, at the age of 29 but in general terms the more central a player and the further back they play, the longer they can last at the top level. Javier Mascherano is a prime example of moving back, in his case to the centre of the defence, which extended his career at the top level with Barcelona. Ronaldo’s move from wide to the middle did much the same thing with Real Madrid. Michael Carrick, Gareth Barry and Phil Jagielka are all playing well into their 30’s but again are defensive minded players. On top of that their appearances are being ‘managed’ so they don’t burn out.
Players tackle rate and success, dribbling and shot taking all decline with age. These can all be counteracted by creative passing and finding space. Both Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs played well into their 30’s. Scholes passing was arguably as good in his final season as previous seasons. Technical ability is key here as players replace speed and stamina with skill.
In general, strikers struggle to maintain their performance at the top level. There are some who have defied their age, for example, Jermaine Defoe is one who managed to successfully return to the top level. After a spell with Toronto FC, Jermaine joined Sunderland in January 2015. With a struggling side, he scored 15 goals in each of his two seasons up front and regained his international place up front after over three years absence. He is now approaching his 36th birthday and is currently with Bournemouth, although he has been restricted to 19 appearances this season. Teddy Sheringham, Les Ferdinand and Kevin Phillips all lasted well into their 30’s as strikers.
There have been many examples of players reaching their peak later than the average peak age. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a prime example. He has performed at the highest level for many years and actually saved his highest ratio of 0.91 goals per 90 minutes for Paris Saint-Germain at the age of 32. He appeared for Manchester United at the age of 36 last November and in March this year scored two goals on his debut for L.A Galaxy. Other players who managed to either peak or return to/maintain a high level include Antonio Di Natale (Udinese), Luca Toni (AC Fiorentina), Ruud Van Nistelrooy (Real Madrid), Alexander Meier (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Francesco Totti (AS Roma). As stated though, these are unusual peaks and relatively rare amongst strikers and wide players in particular.
Rooney’s contribution to the team
It was generally accepted that Rooney had made a reasonable start to his second Everton career but performances appear to have faded in the second half of the season. In an article on the ’90 minutes’ website, claims were made that Rooney’s career had been rejuvenated by returning to his boyhood club. By 18th December he had scored 10 goals, 7 from open play. The 7 goals were from 21 attempts, which at 33% was the best return of his career. In contrast his conversion rate last season was just 6.1%. Since that match, he hasn’t scored and has only completed 90 minutes in 3 league games this year.
There have been several suggestions as to where Rooney’s best position is. Up to December 2017 and even beyond, Rooney had been employed in a variety of positions with varying success. This makes evaluation difficult. He’s played as the main striker, just off the front man, attacking midfield, as a deeper lying midfielder as well as wider positions drifting in from the left or right. Earlier in the season when results were particularly poor, it was almost as if he was trying to play all positions at once, without success.
The problem is, Wayne hasn’t really made any of these positions his own, although he’s generally settled further back than at his peak. His passing success rate has varied enormously, from a high of 87.5% in the home game against Bournemouth to a low of 57.1% against Liverpool at Anfield. In fact, his four lowest pass completion rates were against Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City. All top six sides. In 13 games, however, Rooney’s pass completion rate was over 80% so am I being a little unfair? The figures, of course, don’t take into account the type of pass you make. Given Rooney’s vision, it is likely that he will attempt a more elaborate, defence splitting pass than his more limited or defensive teammates. Everton have performed poorly against the top 6 this season so maybe Rooney’s performances reflect that of the team. Maybe he takes more risks against the top clubs with space being more scarce.
The modern game
“Sports science is the biggest and most important change in my lifetime”
Sir Alex Ferguson 2013
The way players approach their profession has changed beyond all recognition in recent years. If you watch a game from the 1970’s or 1980’s you are likely to hear the commentator say that the game was being played at 100 miles per hour. Not compared with nowadays it wasn’t. There’s no comparison with the modern game as fitness levels and rule changes have contributed to more intense football, particularly at the highest levels.
As a snapshot of the kind of intensity experienced is revealing. In the last ten years alone, Prozone statistics show the following have increased:
Total player distance covered +2%,
Average high-intensity distance +11%
Average sprint distance +17%
Sprints per team +30.6% (but recovery time dropped by 20%)
Individual sprints +31% (but sprint distance dropped by 7%)
High accelerations +28%
Aerobic capacity peaks at around the 18-20 year-old mark and can be sustained until about 25 years old. It then deteriorates about 10% every decade throughout life. This can be reduced to 5% per year if a person is extremely fit. A player therefore in their early 30’s can be estimated to have about 10% less aerobic capacity than their younger teammates.
The conclusion to be made it that wide players and forwards are likely to have to move inside to extend their careers into their 30’s. The increase in pre and post season tours, complaints about fixture congestion leave little time for recovery. Despite footballers being fitter than they’ve ever been, it’s no wonder many players are retiring themselves from international football early to preserve their careers. Almost unheard of 30 years ago.
Comparing Wayne Rooney’s age with other players is not particularly helpful as the variation in a footballers genetics, lifestyle, injury history and number of games also have an impact on a players longevity. Wayne Rooney’s injury record is decent, however, he has been playing at the top level since he was 16. Genetics are more of an unknown quantity and unless players are genetically profiled we won’t know. Who knows what effect Rooney’s genetics and lifestyle have on his performance. Rooney’s passing and vision making up for his lack of pace and stamina could help him adapt better to a move further back. So far, however, this has not helped against better opposition.
Is it worth persevering with a player who may not have those legs to compete fully for 90 minutes in the hope that a defence-splitting pass can win a tight game for his team? That probably depends on how successful the other 10 are and whether this constitutes his presence being a luxury the team can ill afford. Players over 30 are fitter and faster than ever before but the problem is that under 30’s are also fitter and faster than ever before. There is no advantage gained.
Rooney’s output in terms of goals was good before Christmas but when the team aren’t doing well and results poor, people are more critical. Every misplaced pass is noticed as is every mistake when things are not going well. Rooney still has a touch of magic in him given the goal he scored against West Ham from his own half, but those moments are rare. His output against the top clubs is generally poorer than against the rest of the league.
It’s unclear who will be the boss at Everton next season as Sam Allardyce is hugely unpopular with the fans. Given that Rooney will be 33 not long after the start of next season, it’s hard to see any manager justifying giving such a huge wage to a player whose place can only be seen as useful against teams from the lower half of the division. Every year he plays gets harder for him to perform at the highest level. Historical comparisons with other forwards of his age show that the chance of him, rediscovering anything like he was five years ago is very unlikely.
The one area where Rooney is likely to be a success is that of mentor to the younger players. That shy, awkward, gum-chewing teenager is now a media-savvy role model, even if he does slip up occasionally. It’s an expensive position at the club though, maybe too expensive.
Ultimately it’s likely to be down to whoever manages him next season. The chance of him finding a suitable position in the team fades with every passing month. I believe he’s unlikely to go to another English club and there’s no embarrassment in being past your best and bowing out gracefully. There’s also the possibility of extending his playing career in the USA or China. To repeat a well-worn cliche, only time will tell, but then time is running out.