Since joining Truro City on loan, Plymouth Argyle reserve Dan Rooney has excelled. The central-midfielder recently won the player-of-the-month award for October and has helped to turn around the club’s fortunes. With performances and results picking up over the past five games, the White Tigers have lifted themselves out of the relegation zone.

Along with ex-Argyle youth product River Allen, Rooney has been central to the turnaround in performances as part of a more balanced midfield unit. Indeed, to get an idea of how influential he has been, just listen to the commentary from Truro’s 1-1 draw with high-flying Bath City:

Rooney’s success has a lot to do with the position he’s been played in. Truro play a 3-1-4-2 formation, with a midfield trio highly similar to that used by Argyle last season: a sitting midfielder who is comfortable passing the ball and two central-midfielders pressing on ahead of him. With Allen behind, Rooney has started all five matches in the more advanced position alongside a midfield partner.

This formation suits his attributes. For those who have not seen him play, the best player to compare him to in Argyle’s squad would be Antoni Sarcevic. Like Argyle’s number 7, his main strengths lie in his attacking movement and his ball-carrying attributes. Playing on lesser quality pitches in the National League South has limited the number of opportunities he has had to dribble at opponents, but that hasn’t impacted his movement off the ball, as you can see in the next highlight:

Just like Sarcevic, Rooney displayed an astute awareness of the space around him. First, he moved forward to provide another crossing option for the wing-back, Thompson, before peeling off into space once Thompson was in a position to cut the ball back instead. This kind of run, into space around the edge of the box, is one that Sarcevic often makes to position himself for a cut-back and get off a shot at goal.

Rooney (number 15) also demonstrated good attacking awareness when scoring Truro’s goal in this match:

Though this appears to be a routine goalmouth scramble (and in many ways it was) there were pieces of skill demonstrated during, particularly by Rooney. It may take a couple of replays to fully appreciate the movement, but once you see it you will understand the intelligence behind it.

Having initially made a run to the back post, Rooney circled back into the centre of the box following the blocked shot for a potential rebound or cross. From there, once Harvey returned the ball to the centre, Rooney was positioned six-yards from goal, unmarked, for a tap-in.

This kind of movement that has increased Truro’s attacking threat. Prior to his arrival, the strikers had too often been isolated by the midfield and supplied mainly by long-passes. Since, Rooney has proved to be a valuable link between midfield and attack, helping to generate dangerous positions.

This can also be seen in the goal he assisted for Tyler Harvey against Dartford:

Again, we’re looking at a piece of good attacking awareness and movement. Rooney saw the space beyond the full-back and attacked it. Though he was fortunate to receive the ball, that was partly due to the pressure he put the defender under, while his quick thinking to cut the ball past the ‘keeper created an open-goal for Harvey.

It has been this role, as the link between the midfield and the attack, that has noticeably improved Truro and won him the player-of-the-month award. Since his arrival, the rate at which Truro have scored goals has doubled. Tyler Harvey, who scored once in the opening seven games, has thrived since Rooney arrived because of this improved link. With markedly improved service, he is currently on a run of four goals in four matches.

However, where the Sarcevic comparison falls down is in defending and passing. One of Sarcevic’s great strengths is his all-action pressing style that restricts the opposition’s time and space in midfield. It is not yet apparent whether Rooney has these qualities, though that does not make it a weakness in his game – rather, it isn’t an area in which he currently specialises. Given that he only turns 20 this month, there is still a lot of time for him to improve on this.

What he lacks in defensive awareness, he makes up for in passing ability. Whereas Sarcevic’s passing is holding him back – if he were to improve his awareness and consistency in this area, he’d probably be of Championship quality – Rooney’s passing is just another string to his bow.

Though not at the level where he has the ability to run games single-handedly, like Carey did in his first two seasons at the club from central attacking-midfield, Rooney’s passing is certainly a stronger part of his game than Sarcevic’s is. It may not be strong enough to dictate the play of matches, like Fox can, but it is good enough to make him a player capable of playing in a number of roles and formations.

Indeed, Rooney is a classic box-to-box midfielder. Solid – but currently unremarkable – in defence, comfortable in possession, capable of opening up defences with a well-timed attacking run, and an able finisher to boot. He has all the tools required at his age to succeed in that position.

However, it should not be missed that football has trended away from box-to-box midfielders in the past decade. The era of Lampard and Gerrard faded into one of Xavi and Iniesta. Midfields have become more technical – the best sides now require the capability to dominate possession. The 4-2-3-1 formation, the most common style used in England, is mostly constructed around solid defensive midfielders (like Tom Purrington), deep-lying playmakers (like Cameron Sangster) and technically excellent creators (like Rio Garside).

As an all-round, box-to-box midfielder, Rooney – like Sarcevic – currently falls into none of those categories. That’s not to say that he cannot make it. Many sides, including Argyle, currently operate outside of that 4-2-3-1 system, while others incorporate these kinds of midfielders into the formation. Rather, he has to ensure that he picks the right clubs to join after his spell at Truro is complete.

Dan Rooney’s time at Cornwall’s premier football club has, thus far, been a success. It has demonstrated that Argyle’s reserves can not only compete, but excel, alongside more seasoned professional. Yet, in order for any young player to become a successful, professional footballer, they must show consistent improvement.

Rooney has made an excellent start, but to continue progressing he must ensure that he makes the right move after his loan with Truro is complete. By picking the right sides to join, ones that will emphasise his strengths, Rooney will increase his chances that he can be a success story for Plymouth Argyle’s academy.

Author: Nick Saunders Smith

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