Diego Forlan will be writing a weekly column for The National, appearing each Friday. The former Manchester United, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid striker has been the top scorer in Europe twice and won the Golden Boot at the 2010 World Cup. He currently plays in Japan for Cerezo Osaka. Forlan’s column will be written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.
At the moment, Wayne Rooney is playing out of position in Manchester United’s midfield.
At Inter Milan, I agreed to play on the wing and didn’t like it. I’m happy to play as a centre forward or a second striker, like in the national team with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. That’s why Inter bought me: they told me they wanted goals, and I’d scored them throughout my career.
But a combination of a fast-changing team in decline only a year after winning the European Cup, poor league results and injuries for the first time in my career meant I was put out on the wing.
I accepted because I wanted to play. I did OK in some games, but wasn’t as good as I could have been as a striker.
I was then criticised by fans. They looked for excuses when the team didn’t win. They wouldn’t accept that I was out of position and still expected me to play well and score goals.
So I lost my place in the team. You can get caught up in a negative cycle where you’d tried to help the manager but ended up losing your place in the side.
Rather than play out of position again, I told the manager, Claudio Ranieri, that I would prefer to wait for my chance in my proper position.
Rooney is a top player and good enough to function in several roles. United also have Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao. All three can’t be accommodated up front, and Rooney is better being used out of position than the other two.
It’s a compromise because the team lose a brilliant finisher, one I first noticed while playing for United’s reserves at Everton in 2003.
Rooney was only 16, but we were told he was going to be a top player, that he was strong with quick feet. Very English in his style, too. Young talents are usually still missing something, but Rooney had everything.
We shook hands afterwards, but my departure from United in 2004 probably was a factor in Rooney arriving at Old Trafford a few weeks later.
It’s a shame we never played together, but I did the right thing in leaving and won the European golden boot at Villarreal in a season I’d started off as United’s fourth striker.
Rooney and I have faced each other on the pitch a few times since but never really had a chance to talk. He was sent off in one game at Villarreal, and I spoke to Gary Neville rather than Rooney after Uruguay beat England at Sao Paulo last summer.
Rooney joined a United team with a couple of players who were good enough to play out of their best position. He wasn’t always used in a central role then, and compromises were made with other players. Paul Scholes could play different roles, and Phil Neville could play in about five positions but he would say he was best as a full-back.
Neville was a friend and made me feel welcome when I moved to Manchester in 2002. Later that year, we played champions Arsenal in a league game. I was disappointed to be dropped to the bench. I’d scored both goals at Anfield the week before and was playing well. I felt I was finding my way in England.
Neville was named in central midfield to play against Patrick Vieira. Maybe he started because of terrible injuries in our team. Quinton Fortune, who would have been great in an aggressive game, had broken his leg. Roy Keane, the captain, was also out, as were David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Rio Ferdinand.
Carlos Queiroz, a tactically shrewd coach, told us the game would be won in the middle.
Alex Ferguson saw it like a chess game and knew Neville wouldn’t let him down. He also fired us up like our lives – and the lives of our families – depended on the result.
We were missing so many players, yet Neville was incredible, the outstanding man on the pitch. Arsenal had scored in their 56 previous games, but they didn’t score that day with Neville intercepting the ball, tackling so hard that the crowd stood up and roared.
He was winning the ball from everybody – aggressive, but in a controlled way.
When Thierry Henry complained to the referee about Neville, we knew we had the better of Arsene Wenger’s champions. We won 2-0 with goals from Sebastian Veron (and he’s worth a future column) and Scholes (him, too).
That result was vital in establishing United as title challengers in a league we would win.
It was our best performance of the season. Maybe that’s what United need now, a great performance with Rooney in midfield. But when the team don’t play as well as they can, there will be criticism for every player. It’s usually aimed mostly at those who played out of position.
Rooney has avoided criticism because he’s played well, but what sort of contribution would he make in his best position?
Diego says watch out for...
Deportivo La Coruna v Celta Vigo, the big Galician derby, 1am (UAE), Sunday. Ten years ago, these two were among the best in Spain. Both have been relegated twice since but seem safe in the Primera Liga this season. Celta, who beat Barca away in November, are ninth. Depor are 14th. Celta beat Atletico Madrid 2-0 last week. They won the derby at home in September, but to win at La Coruna, where the fans hate them and the atmosphere will be against them will be difficult.
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