Wayne Rooney made it look so easy with his two goals for Manchester United against AC Milan on Wednesday, didn't he? I watched with a mixture of admiration, respect and disbelief as he stood out among great names like Ronaldinho, Andrea Pirlo and Alexandre Pato. I smiled as he made Alessandro Nesta, one of the best defenders in the word - trust me, I've played against him - look like a schoolboy in the Champions League.
Rooney was outstanding and his form somehow manages to get better. We are only in February, but if he carries on like this and wins trophies this season, he'd be a favourite for football's main individual awards. As a former striker, I watch his game closely and what I've noticed in the past 18 months is his positioning. People say that he's filled the gap left by Cristiano Ronaldo at United and they have a point in terms of status and presence, but Rooney is scoring a lot more goals because of his anticipation and positioning.
He's scoring far more tap-ins and goals from close range because he gets in the right place. The old Rooney would loiter around the 18-yard box, poised to hit a lethal shot for another spectacular goal. They will have looked great when he watched them back on television, but Rooney has realised that not every goal has to be spectacular to be effective. Consequently he's scoring far more goals and it's right that he's now compared with Lionel Messi, Kaka and Ronaldo, the three best players in the world.
He now shares the trait with those players that he makes the impossible look normal. United had never won in the San Siro in their previous eight visits, but Rooney was undaunted. Compare his performance with the last time he played against Milan in 2007 and there's a huge difference. Then, Italians could not see what the fuss was about. Now, their papers are giving him an 8/10 - almost unheard of.
Roy Keane only got an '8' for his best ever performance as we came from 2-0 down to beat Juventus in Turin in the Champions League semi-final in 1999 - not that players look at marks in the papers. OK, some do more than others. When United are under pressure, Rooney can find himself as the lone striker. I used to call it the graveyard shift, because it was a thankless task. You would run your backside off for little reward and I much preferred playing up top with a partner.
It was Sir Alex Ferguson's insistence on using Ruud van Nistelrooy as the head of a 4-5-1 formation which limited my chances and ultimately saw me leave Old Trafford. The gaffer thought this was the way to win more Champions League trophies, but it didn't happen. I thought he was wrong and that 4-4-2 was the way to play, but the manager has been sharper in Europe than I thought. United are much more flexible and experienced and formations can be changed during the match.
Rooney felt marooned in the first half on Wednesday, so he had a go at his teammates at half-time and told them that they had to do their job and get forward more. Ferguson said the same thing in the recent 3-1 Carling Cup semi-final victory over Manchester City. In both games, United looked twice the side in the second half and won the game. Players are far more adaptable too. Ji-Sung Park and Ryan Giggs can play on the wing or in the central role.
Park blew Arsenal away but marked Pirlo in the centre in Milan. My old teammate David Beckham can shift positions too. A great lad who is totally down to earth in the dressing room, he's done very well to be playing at such a high standard at 34, though United had the measure of him in Milan. I could also relate to him having to play against his former club. It's not easy playing against United when you have enjoyed so much success there, the highlights of your career.
You don't know what reaction you are going to get from United fans, but like Becks in Milan, mine was really positive. That was one weight off my mind, but playing against friends can play with your head. Then there was the perception of United. I found myself sticking up for former teammates if one of my new teammates were having a go. Despite all United's success though, they were always respected at the other clubs I played at.
Some teams, such as Liverpool in the mid-90s, were seen as being big time and arrogant, but not United. That mentality stems from Ferguson, who gets rid of anyone he considers to be getting too big for their boots. In hindsight, they usually agree that the manager was right. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org