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Mar 24, 2014

The evolution of Wayne Rooney

Wayne Rooney [576x324] - Copy
Wayne Rooney leads United this season in goals, assists, shots, shots on target and chances created.

Heading into Tuesday's Manchester derby, there is once again optimism on the red half of Manchester. A surprise 3-0 victory over Olympiakos last week in the Champions League begat a 2-0 domestic victory over the weekend, and the common denominator in both of these victories has been Wayne Rooney.

Rooney recently signed a five-year extension to remain with United until 2019, but as recently as last summer there were persistent rumors that he was ready and willing to leave the club. At that time, Robin van Persie was the star of the team, and his league-leading 26 goals in 2012-13 made Rooney appear expendable. This feeling was exacerbated by multiple reports that Rooney was open to leaving United on his own volition, which opened up questions about his personality as well as his play.

Still, it is difficult to ignore the impact that he has made on the field this season. Rooney led England with seven goals throughout World Cup qualifying, is tied for sixth in the Premier League with 13 goals and ranks second in the league with 10 assists. Further, the fact he's accomplished this while serving a new role with United illustrates his continued adaptability and versatility as a player. In the end, Rooney may well determine whether the Red Devils make up the five points that will return them to European competition next season.

Here are three examples of Rooney’s adaptability while he's transitioned this season from an instinctive, opportunistic striker to a versatile, creative attacking midfielder with a knack for scoring goals.

More aggressive in the attack

While United has struggled to find consistency in its play, Rooney has been the most reliable player for the team this season and in many ways is responsible for igniting the team’s attack. Rooney’s transition to an attacking midfield role has allowed him to have a bigger impact on United’s attack, and the 28-year-old has relied as much on his dribbling as his passing to create chances for both himself and others within the team this season.

A heat map of Wayne Rooney’s take-ons through March 24 of 2012-13 season, left, and those through March 24 of 2013-14 season.

Rooney averages 2.5 take-ons per 90 minutes, a substantial increase over the 1.4 take-ons per 90 minutes that he averaged to this point in 2012-13. The location of his take-ons also suggests that Rooney has embraced a role in which he can roam more in the attack, freeing himself to either take players on or create more often for his teammates.

In addition to his dribbling, Rooney’s 10 assists have once again generated more credibility toward his abilities...