A month into a campaign where Wayne Rooney has been named captain of club and country, questions remain about his precise role in both sides. Manchester United’s signings of Ángel di María and Radamel Falcao provide Louis van Gaal with other top-class attacking options, while it increasingly seems Rooney is crowbarred into the England side at the expense of overall cohesion.
In fairness, while Rooney was not in spectacular form at the World Cup, he was not one of England’s worst performers either. He created Daniel Sturridge’s equaliser against Italy with a fine run and cross, before scoring England’s only other goal of the tournament against Uruguay.
In terms of goalscoring, Rooney remains consistent: he has reached double figures in 10 consecutivePremier League seasons, a truly outstanding record. Nevertheless, it is fascinating thatwhile United have won the title in half of those seasons, Rooney’s best four goalscoringcampaigns have come when others have triumphed – Manchester City twice and Chelsea twice. Perhaps that tells the story: what is best for Rooney is not always best for his side.
At international level, there is a similar feeling. Rooney is now on 41 England goals, but Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over Norway was a microcosm of the situation – Rooney scored the only goal from the penalty spot and therefore found his name in the headlines yet again, but England looked most lively after he was substituted, with 20 minutes remaining.
That allowed Roy Hodgson to change system, playing Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck upfront together, with Raheem Sterling at the head of a midfield diamond, where he had excelled for Liverpool in their 3-0 thrashing of Tottenham last weekend. There was greater pace in England’s attack, neater combinations between the lines and more players in advance of the ball, giving the midfielders options.
Even when Rooney was on the pitch, he was not involved in England’s best moves. Club combinations came to the fore: Sterling and Sturridge twice interchanged passes excellently, then Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played a neat one-two. England’s best passingmoves were played around Rooney, rather than through him, and for a No10, that is a damning indictment of his minimal influence.
In truth, Rooney’s best position for England might be as the primary striker, the role he developed into during the 2009-10 campaign for United, but has seldom played since. However, the fine club form of Sturridge means that position is not available, and shoving Sturridge out wide is an unhappy compromise.
Rooney can be fielded wide, but in England’s opening World Cup fixture, he was put on the left and failed to track Italy’s right-back Matteo Darmian, leaving Leighton Baines exposed. Worryingly, Rooney was only playing there to free him from the defensive responsibility of tracking Andrea Pirlo, something he was not capable of during Euro 2012. Not only has Rooney’s creative potential declined, his tactical discipline has vanished too.
Strangely, the Rooney problem will not be critical over the next 18 months – in such a weak qualification group England should defeat minnows with a minimum of fuss, the central midfielders should be able to command matches as a duo, and Rooney can concentrate on goalscoring.
Against stronger opposition, however, England will continue to look fragmented. By Euro 2016, Rooney will probably be England’s all-time record goalscorer, but Hodgson will be faced with the same old dilemma about how to use him.