Wayne Rooney may have spent a small part of the yawning news chasm that is pre-match international week speaking candidly (or alternatively, indulging in a score-settling whinge) about his disaffection as Sir Alex Ferguson's man for all seasons at Manchester United.

It was, though, not entirely off the point. Against Montenegro at Wembley on Friday Rooney made pretty much the same argument on the pitch against tightly knit, but ultimately outmanoeuvred opponents. When he tries to do it all, Rooney does it quite well. When he does a little less, for England at least, he does a little better.

It has been fashionable in recent years to fret about what Rooney is not, but his real-life qualities are still intact. Mid-career Rooney may not be as svelte or indeed as happy as he might at times, but England's premier schemer-hustler remains reliably dead-eye when it matters.

Friday's opener just after half-time was his 27th competitive international goal. For those who know their Rooney stats it was also the moment the match was effectively – or at least in all probability – decided. England have lost one competitive match (six years ago in Russia) in which he has scored. When Rooney has scored, England have lost one match of any description at home, a 3-2 defeat in a friendly against Denmark in 2003. His record in tournaments is poor, but Rooney remains England's own King of the Qualifiers. A man for, if not the biggest stage, then at least for the next best, the quite big stage.

The stats bear this out. Fourteen of Rooney's past 16 England goals have come in live competitive matches, the other two in friendlies against Brazil. This is no home-track bully either. Of Rooney's 37 career England goals, 12 have come at Wembley and 16 overall in England. In a better team, or indeed with better luck with injuries, he might have been a notable tournament player. Instead it is in some Balkan stronghold, or central European mini-cauldron of hate, that the best moments of Rooney's England career have arrived.

Looking back over the past year these are high times generally for Rooney and England. If there was something eminently sensible about the selection against Montenegro – in contrast to the slightly frantic collective wrestle against Ukraine – it was that every member of the starting lineup, with the exception perhaps of Danny Welbeck, was asked to play in his ideal position. This is also the source of Rooney's strength under Roy Hodgson. He plays where he wants and in a system that suits him. In the current favourite 4-2-3-1 there is less of the call of the wild about his movement, less compulsion to drop into midfield and fight for the ball before turning to pass to a hypothetical player not standing in the position where he, Rooney, should be.

Instead, Rooney has fast, fit players around him to do the work while he concentrates on providing England's glimmers of invention, and on demonstrating what an excellent finisher he remains. José Mourinho had planned to play Rooney as a central striker at Chelsea and it makes a lot of sense. In his least effective matches – the invisible man performance against Italy in Kiev springs to mind – Rooney is simply marginalised. But give him a chance and he will usually take it.

After the current qualification campaign, Rooney has at least one more in him. For a man of his goalscoring tastes there is time enough here – he has eight England goals in the last calendar year – to hoover up the 10 required to become England's all-time highest scorer. What is more intriguing is the possibility he may yet develop an effective mid- to long-term partnership with Daniel Sturridge, as is clearly Hodgson's intention.

It has generally been a lone furrow for Rooney with England down the years, his co-strikers a mixed bag of also-rans and pressed men. If there was only grudging evidence of any great burgeoning telepathy in the Roo-Sturr partnership on Friday night it does still look ripe with possibilities.

These are very early days, but with Rooney and Sturridge on the pitch together, England's record reads five goals scored in 120 minutes. A little more of the same on Tuesday night and England's King of the Qualifiers looks certain to get another crack at something grander next summer.