Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson has challenged Wayne Rooney to increase his goals output.
The forward has scored only three times this season, the same number as defensive team-mate Jonny Evans.
It is a rather sobering statistic given new-boy Robin van Persie has 12 goals and Javier Hernandez has moved on to nine, despite eight of his 17 appearances this term coming from the bench.
Rooney’s sharp-shooting has been affected by two fitness problems — a gashed thigh and a bout of tonsillitis — that kept him out of six matches in total.
In addition, he has operated from deeper positions following the arrival of van Persie.
Nevertheless, for a player of Rooney’s standing, three is a low figure and Ferguson wants it to improve.
“Wayne is going through a period like all strikers do, he is not scoring,” said Ferguson. “He has missed bits of games and been off with tonsillitis, and Wayne is the type of player who can’t miss games because of the frame he has got.”
The midfield idea is something Ferguson has tinkered with before and at times it has worked, especially when United have used the diamond formation.
“I am happy with that part of his game,” said Ferguson.
“If he can contribute to the team’s success, fine. But we would rather he scored more obviously.”
Getting an orthodox striking berth back will be tricky though.
In 2009-10, Rooney scored 34 as a lone front-man, but since the arrival of Van Persie from Arsenal, there has been no disputing who the number one forward is.
“Without doubt Robin is an up-front player,” said Ferguson.
“He has experience and now our players are starting to realise how good he is.
“We are getting more aware of the runs he is making and the movement he has up front. Hopefully that understanding gets better.”
Van Persie and Rooney may operate in tandem at the Madejski Stadium today when United visit Reading.
Victory would confirm their status as Premier League leaders ahead of the first Manchester derby of the season at the Etihad Stadium on December 8.
Some critics cannot quite believe United have a ~seven-point advantage over third-placed Chelsea given that their performances, at times, have been quite poor.
Even midfielder Michael Carrick described Wednesday’s win over West Ham as “far from a classic”, but Ferguson is not joining the criticism. “I don’t think the form has been that bad to be honest,” he said.
“But when you are manager of this club, you have to go through that analysis about Manchester United not being as good as they used to be.
“We are still top of the league so we must be doing something right.”
Ferguson, however, is refusing to accept the title race is as a two-horse race already — but he would not be surprised if that is how it ends up.
“You can’t be certain of saying it’s going to be a two-horse race at this stage,” said Ferguson. “But over the years we’ve said that the top five or six are all capable of winning the league and eventually it does ends up being a two-horse race.”
One area Ferguson is wrestling with just now is his goalkeeping department.
It had seemed as though David de Gea had finally banished doubts over his ability to handle to physical nature of the Premier League and won the battle with Anders Lindegaard to be first-choice.
However, a badly-timed problem with his wisdom teeth forced him out of Ferguson’s team once more.
Whilst Lindegaard played on losing sides against both Norwich and Galatasaray, he kept his place for victories over QPR and West Ham, when United managed only their third clean sheet of the entire season.
And there is no guarantee De Gea will return at the Madejski Stadium.
“Anders has done nothing wrong since he came into the team,” said Ferguson. “That is what is keeping him in.
“It’s good that you’ve got two good goalkeepers competing for a position.”
For his part, Reading boss Brian McDermott is relishing the prospect of facing United.
He gushed: “Manchester United, the name itself, is synonymous with everything that’s good in football. “You look at the key nucleus of their squad in recent years; Scholes, Neville, Giggs – they were all there for a long time. Those types of players bring on the younger players too.
“That philosophy of the group is something we have always aimed to achieve.’’
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