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How Wayne Rooney's Late-Career Revival Has Transformed Derby County

Wayne Rooney's move to MLS was declared a farewell tour, a career death sentence for a 30-something ex-Premier League star. After moderate success during his single season with Everton, Rooney was seen as a shell of his former self when he left his boyhood club for D.C. United in 2018.

Despite this criticism, Rooney flourished in the U.S., notching 23 goals in 48 games and leaving a highlight real in his wake.

In August 2019, it was announced that Rooney would sign for EFL Championship side Derby County as a player-coach, with his contract beginning January 2020.

"He will be important for us because he is a natural leader and this is something we still struggle with," Derby manager Phillip Cocu said. "Reading the game, seeing what is necessary at moments and also verbally if somebody is not doing his job, getting everybody switched on."

Rooney's return to England did not come without financial controversy though. His salary, reported to be in the neighborhood of $100,000 per week, became the highest in the Championship and was funded in part by a new sponsorship from betting company 32Bet.

The signing was also announced in the same window that Derby purchased Polish starlet Krystian Bielik from Arsenal for a club-record $9 million. These lavish investments were made possible by Derby selling its stadium to owner Mel Morris in a contentious agreement that netted the club $100 million. 

Rooney started his first match for Derby County on January 2, 2020, with the 34-year-old notching an assist on an inch-perfect free kick in a 2-1 victory over Barnsley. Since then, he has tallied four goals and two assists for the Derby, toting the Rams from 17th all the up to seventh, just one point off of a playoff spot.

Derby's win at Preston on Wednesday featured Rooney at his best. The former Red Devil bossed the game as holding midfielder for Cocu's side. He led the Rams in two key (and undervalued) passing categories: passes into the final third and forward passes (per WhoScored). But the real spectacle was this peach of a free kick curled in by Rooney in the first half:

Rooney still showcases his extensive skillset, but his game has changed. You won't find him charging about the pitch like someone stole his lunch money or angrily whacking 30-yard volleys into the top corner. Once a center forward or a roaming second striker, Rooney has dropped deeper, playing as one of two holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1.

In his advanced age he has gained wisdom. Similar to the great Andrea Pirlo in his elder years, Rooney knows that his technical skills are still world class but his athleticism isn't what it use to be. He can't cover the ground he could a decade ago, but then again, he doesn't need to. Instead he positions himself intelligently and allows the ball to do the work.

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At Derby he isn't expected to patrol the entire field. Instead, Rooney is surrounded by a young cohort of talented, energetic midfielders. Players like Max Bird, Jayson Knight and Duane Holmes are flexible enough to play anywhere in the midfield and work equally hard on defense and offense. This allows Rooney to stay centrally and spray pinpoint passes to all areas of the pitch (he leads Derby outfield players in long passes per game).

Rooney's return to England couldn't have some at a better time for the Championship side. Coming off a 2-1 defeat to Aston Villa in last year's Playoff Final, Derby's squad has a very different look this season. Liverpool wonder-kid and free-kick phenom Harry Wilson returned to the Premier League. Manager Frank Lampard left for Chelsea and loanees Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori also returned to play under Lampard.

This allowed Derby to showcase its homegrown young talent but also left holes in the squad. Derby County's deep-lying midfielder, the aging, immobile Tom Huddlestone, has been largely ineffective in recent seasons, and captain Richard Keogh was released earlier this season for his involvement in a drunk-driving incident after a team function.

Rooney provides quality and playmaking ability the Rams lacked in midfield. He also fills a leadership gap left by Keogh's departure, and his set-piece prowess replaces the magical left boot of the departed Wilson. His role as a player-coach also cannot be discounted, as Rooney tutors Derby's set of young-but-talented midfielders. 

Since Rooney's debut, the Rams have lost just three times in 15 league matches and reached the Round of 16 in the FA Cup. With just six matches left in the season, a Rooney-led Derby County side looks like a genuine promotion contender. 

The question is, will Wayne Rooney get the chance to write his final chapter in the Premier League?

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