Analytics: A look back at Rooney’s career

James Sharman joined Prime Time Sports to talk about soccer’s summer transfer window, saying Manchester United needs help scoring because Wayne Rooney isn’t enough.

Wayne Rooney will soon be the English national team’s all-time leading scorer.

The two goals that will take him past Sir Bobby Charlton may or may not come this weekend against San Marino, but it doesn’t really matter. Soon enough Rooney will have forever etched his name in the England history books.

Despite the accomplishment many look back on Rooney’s career as one of unfulfilled potential. He was touted among the best in the world when he first hit the international stage scoring three goals at Euro 2004 shortly before a big money transfer to Manchester United. Following his move to Old Trafford his name was being mentioned alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who at the time were all teenagers.

It wasn’t until Ronaldo left Manchester United in 2009 that Rooney was the undisputed main man at the club and at only 24 there were still hopes the Englishman would match the heights of his departing Portuguese colleague.

So what’s happened to Rooney since the 2009-10 season? Well to put it bluntly, he hasn’t improved. His production numbers have decreased almost every season since.

In 2009-10 Rooney averaged 0.9 goals per 90 minutes, and he repeated that same total in 2011-12, but otherwise his goalscoring numbers have been in constant decline. His assist numbers have declined in recent seasons, too.

His shots and key passes—passes that lead to a shot—have followed similar trends. Rooney’s shot per 90 stats—which tend to be a very good indicator of future goalscoring performances—have dropped at an almost constant rate since 2009. In 2009-2010 he was averaging six shots per 90 minutes; last season that number was down to 2.5 shots.

What does all this mean? Essentially that Rooney reached his peak in the season that Ronaldo left Manchester United, and that he has been in a pretty steady decline since he was 24. Strikers usually don’t start to see their production numbers drop off until significantly later in their careers.

The loyal Rooney defenders will point to the fact he has been used more as a midfielder in these past few years, but that fails to take into account that he was often moved there because his production numbers weren’t as good as the other strikers he was competing against for playing time. Even with England today there are calls for Rooney to be dropped further into midfield to make room for Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling.

Rooney’s decline—at least in terms of being an elite forward—is best summed up by a statistic called Weighted Chances Created Plus (wCC+). wCC+ looks at how much a player contributes to his team’s attack relative to other players at his position. It is weighted so that the league average is 100.

Rooney’s wCC+ last season was 105, meaning he only contributed five percent more to his team’s attack than the average striker. This put him 36th among Premier League strikers. Notably one of the players he trailed was his much-maligned Manchester United teammate Radamel Falcao who had a wCC+ of 108. Even if we take into account the various positions Rooney played last season under Louis Van Gaal, this is a fall from grace for a player once considered among the most promising in the world.

Putting aside Rooney’s steady decline over the years, there is still something positive that separates him from other prolific strikers over the past six seasons. Consistency.

Rooney has scored over 100 Premier League goals since 2009. There have really been only two other strikers that have scored at rates comparable to Rooney throughout this period: Sergio Aguero and Robin Van Persie. However, if we compare the minutes played between these strikers Rooney comes out on top as by far the most consistent.

Whereas Aguero and Van Persie have suffered injury spells during their time in England Rooney has consistently logged over 2000 minutes per season for Manchester United.

So what should we make of Wayne Rooney? How should England fans remember the man destined to be there all-time leading scorer?

To call Rooney workmanlike would be unfair. He has been very good at times and although his numbers have declined he did start from quite high heights.

But, Rooney won’t become England’s all-time top scorer because he was the most brilliant striker ever to represent the Three Lions—he’ll be their all-time top scorer for the simple fact that he was always there.

Unlike many talented strikers in the Premier League over the past few seasons Rooney hasn’t run into any major injury troubles. He’s put up respectable numbers year after year and has spent enough time on the pitch to catch up to Sir Bobby Charlton’s goalscoring records both at the club and international levels even if he’s been far from spectacular along the way.

Opta data used in this article.

Sam Gregory is soccer analytics writer based in London. Follow him on Twitter

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