Fourteen-goal Mohamed Salah may be the standout player of the first half of the Premier League season on Merseyside, and Manchester City are the undisputed goal kings with two players (Raheem Sterling and Sergio Agüero) reaching double figures before Christmas.
Yet of the half-dozen strikers to have achieved that early target, one has not really been playing as a striker this season. Neither has he been performing, like all the others, for a club in the Champions League elite. Everton have been at the other end of the table most of the time and until a few weeks ago were flirting with relegation, though as if to prove you cannot keep a good man down Wayne Rooney joined the club with his 10th league goal of the season against Swansea on Monday.
Fair enough it was scored from the penalty spot, and so were a couple more in his total, but Harry Kane and Agüero take penalties too. As Rooney’s goals from open play have included his first hat-trick for Everton – one of them a stunning strike from his own half – against West Ham and the Etihad goal in August that remains the only moment in the season to cost Manchester City league points, surely it is reasonable to cut the 32-year-old some slack.
Most people thought the former Manchester United striker was finished, or at least that he had given his best years and form to Old Trafford. Few could understand why Everton wanted him back, especially when Ronald Koeman proceeded to bring Gylfi Sigurdsson to the club. For a while it appeared Everton could not work out their best team, certainly their best frontline, and Koeman ultimately paid the price.
It now appears Everton might have acted a little hastily, not in sacking Koeman but in assuming the slide would continue all the way down the table. Sam Allardyce was brought in to prevent that happening but Rooney’s renaissance began on day minus one of the new manager’s reign, with the shortly to be announced successor to Koeman merely sitting in the stand as David Unsworth’s team finally came good on the occasion of David Moyes’s return to Goodison with West Ham. The key then was playing Rooney a little deeper, so as not to keep running into Sigurdsson’s space. Allardyce has always been relaxed about Rooney’s role in a team – when he was England manager he told him he could play where he liked – and though both ended up severing their England connections sooner than expected it could be that a club reunion suits each of them perfectly.
Allardyce intends to use Rooney sparingly and give him as much rest as possible, while making a point of selecting him for big games. Even in his pomp Rooney was sometimes sidelined at United under Sir Alex Ferguson, which was one thing, before Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho tired of working out how to best fit him into a side and started leaving him on the bench as a matter of routine. “In his last years at Manchester United he wasn’t playing, and you could tell he wanted to play,” Allardyce said, making it sound as if he might have made a bid for the player himself if Koeman had not got there first.
This is where Allardyce comes in, of course. In his time at Bolton he made a reputation for himself by prolonging the careers of several leading internationals whose best days appeared behind them, from Youri Djorkaeff to Jay-Jay Okocha. For all his apparent fondness for long balls and uncomplicated football Allardyce has always been an admirer of gifted players who look after themselves and take their football seriously, and he seems to see Rooney as the latest of the breed. “He’s a true professional, great to work with,” the Everton manager said. “You only need to tell him something once and he’s got it. Wayne seems to have been around a long time but he’s still only 32. I can see him going on for quite a few years yet.”
Rooney is probably thinking the same, if he is granted licence to drop back and play through midfield. This never really worked at United, who had more accomplished midfielders and generally wanted the ball to be moved forward more quickly, but at Everton he can play a sort of hybrid role. He usually likes to operate from around halfway, sometimes dropping even deeper in search of the ball – from where his passing ability comes into play – but he can also bring his sense of timing to bear in getting forward to support and sometimes finish attacks. His goal tally so far, better than those of Álvaro Morata and Alexandre Lacazette, proves he has not lost his eye for an opening. And though the goal he scored to pinch a point off Liverpool in this month’s derby was a penalty, the opportunity had been set up by Rooney’s own searching pass from the right wing to Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the area, where the young centre-forward made a sufficient nuisance of himself for Dejan Lovren to foul him.
Still unbeaten since Allardyce first breathed on them, Everton face a stiff task against Chelsea on Saturday but at least prepare for the game in good spirits, the despondency of a month ago just a memory. Allardyce can take some credit for that, though in reality the revival seemed to be just getting under way when he arrived. Rooney can take a lot of credit for that, and there are signs he is beginning to forge a successful partnership with Sigurdsson, as might be expected of two senior players with sublime skills and plenty of experience.
Sigurdsson has explained it took him a while to get up to speed at Everton; the transfer wrangle interrupted his pre-season and, when he finally arrived at his new club, it was to find them in poor form in the middle of a run of demanding fixtures. Something similar could possibly be said of Rooney, who is also at a new club after all, even if rejoining Everton felt like coming home. Perhaps there was bound to be a period of adjustment. If so it is now over and Everton are on the up again, though the next complication arrives with the transfer window.
Put simply, Rooney’s presence in the goalscoring top six does not alter the fact that Everton need a striker. How to find one who can fit in with Rooney and Sigurdsson is Allardyce’s problem but the club, having been dragged into disarray following the failure to adequately replace Romelu Lukaku in the summer, could undo all its recent good work by making the same mistake again. If, as Allardyce believes, Rooney may be good for another two or three years yet, he does not need the responsibility of being the main goalgetter. In that respect he has overperformed already. He is going into Christmas level on league goals with the player Manchester United spent £75m to take in the opposite direction.
The Guardian Sport