Figures can't tally Rooney's worth

Do you sometimes feel that football today is at risk of being de-humanised by a mania for applying statistics to almost every act that a player makes - short of how many times he breathes during a game?

A warning: There will be essential bits of arithmetic in this preview of the Manchester derby this evening - but only a few.

We need to appreciate that this is the first time Manuel Pellegrini has managed City, and the first time David Moyes has selected a United side for the derby that divides Manchester.

It is, as Pellegrini says, something unique, something rather special, even by the standards of Buenos Aires, where he once felt unsafe to leave his apartment for a week after a Boca Juniors vs River Plata encounter.

But here, in his first season in England, Pellegrini knows only that the quickening of pulse infects every part of Manchester.

His team, the Premier League champions of 2012, lie in wait for United, the reigning champions.

There are huge personal contests everywhere.

There is one in midfield between physical giants Yaya Toure and Marouane Fellaini.

There is one in the goalmouth where defenders will stretch every sinew, and every ounce of concentration, trying to subdue the likes of Sergio Aguero on one side, Robin van Persie on the other.

And there is also one on the flanks where the extraordinary pace of Jesus Navas is a new test for the Red Devils' full-backs, but Antonio Valencia has rediscovered his mojo too, after a year that reflected his broken ankle and the self-doubt that a player feels.

That is the point of my disaffection with statistics.

They do not begin to describe that sport is a human activity and that what is going on between the mind, body and soul of individual players is beyond the pseudo science of trying to break down performance into figures.

Yet, there are compelling exceptions. Last Tuesday, Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick in the Champions League.

Within 24 hours, almost as if this is a personal duel using the highest platform that exists on Planet Football, Lionel Messi did the same thing.

Two individuals thrillingly above all the rest, players who seemingly can do anything they want, including scoring at will and so often they are rewriting every record that went before them.

That is when statistics count because they do define careers. And right now, Wayne Rooney is back on course to join the most select group of Man United players in history.

I need to contradict myself somewhat here and give facts and figures:

  • Bobby Charlton: 249 goals (758 appearances)
  • Denis Law - 237 goals (404)
  • Jack Rowley - 211 goals (424)
  • Rooney - 200 goals (406)
  • Dennis Viollet - 179 goals (293)
  • George Best - 179 goals (470)

We will never be able to say where Rooney fits into the historical pattern set before him.

The game is different for every generation, and the temperaments of the six men listed above could scarcely be a more diverse reflection of humankind.

Let's just say that Rooney is somewhere between the loyalist whom Charlton remains at Old Trafford where he began as a teenager - and Best who couldn't even be true to himself.

Poor George: Genius with a flaw nobody could rely upon.

Rooney has one foot in both elements.

A month ago, he seemed hell-bent on walking away from United. Jose Mourinho was pulling his strings, telling him that United would never let him be "the main man" but Chelsea would.

Moyes, the first new man in United's hot seat in a quarter of a century, stood firm.

"No go, Jose, we hold what we have" was the gist of his action. He knew Rooney from the player's boyhood at Everton. He sold him to United for a fee Everton could not afford to turn down.

And whatever problems Moyes was encountering in the transfer window, he wasn't going to let Rooney ruin what he is capable of building as a Red Devil all-time achiever.

Most of us on the outside felt it might be time to cut the club's losses and take Chelsea's money. This, after all, was not the first time Rooney and his agent had tried to blackmail United over salary and status.

Hands up to Moyes.

The Rooney we have seen since this transfer saga was put to bed has been the player at his best.

Hard-working, lean, hungry to score, but also hungry to play for the team.

Playing in front of van Persie, or behind the Dutchman, rushing unselfishly to the point of danger, defending yet striking, the complete Rooney show appears back up and running.

And the Old Trafford crowd that in August wrung their hands of him, are giving him standing ovations again.

All through this, Moyes' mantra has been that Rooney can break the Charlton record if he works at it.

Charlton, still on the board, has echoed that and said (I believe genuinely) that he would be as thrilled as anyone if Rooney does eclipse his goals tally.

And even Alex Ferguson has come out over the past week applauding Rooney's new zest and new application in the team.

Rooney, by the way, is 27.

Time is on his side although plenty of former players observe that he is a thick-set individual, his game depends on hyper-activity, and once strikers of that heavy build pass 30, they tend to struggle with the physical demands on their body.

Time will tell.

For now, it seems that whatever was bugging Rooney, there has been a change of heart and mind.

My view is that Ferguson was right to leave him out last spring when Rooney's form, and possibly his will, deteriorated.

Moyes is, patently, right to pick him up and push him on again.

There's the thing.

The statistical element that matters - the all-time United record - is dangling before Rooney.

All the rest, the nonsense of the statisticians - who make a living using everything from heat maps to centimetres covered - dulls the game.

For better, or for worse, this is human activity.

stsports@sph.com.sg


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