ROY HODGSON was right to accuse the nation of being “obsessed” with Wayne Rooney last week, but the England manager neglected to mention one of the key reasons behind the infatuation.
England’s football fans are obsessed with Rooney because every manager before Hodgson has shared their fixation with the Manchester United striker.
From the moment he burst on to the international scene so spectacularly at Euro 2004, Rooney has been the central character in every new chapter of England’s unravelling tale of tournament woe.
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Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello were all in thrall to him, and for all that Hodgson might protest otherwise as he attempts to create a new-look side powered by the impetus of youth, the same Rooney-inspired issues are dominating the landscape as another World Cup draws near.
How do you solve a problem like Wayne, the world-class striker who is still to score a goal at the World Cup finals? Is there a way to get the best out of him on the biggest stage of all? Or is it finally time to admit defeat and accept that for all his qualities, England might be a better team if Rooney was on the sidelines rather than strutting around at centre stage?
With less than a fortnight until England’s opening World Cup game against Italy, the questions being aired about Rooney tend to fall into two distinct categories. First, can he regain his fitness and form in time for the finals? Second, even if he does, should there be a place in the England team for him?
We have been here before on both counts, with Rooney’s pre-tournament injury struggles now an established part of England’s build up.
In truth, things are nowhere near as bad this time around as they were in the lead-up to the 2006 finals in Germany, when a broken metatarsal led to him spending time in an oxygen tent, or in the weeks before the 2010 tournament in South Africa, when the ankle damage sustained in a Champions League quarter-final hampered his preparations.
Rooney missed the final three weeks of last season with a groin injury, and looked sluggish during his return in Friday’s friendly with Peru. He has always been a player who needs regular action to keep his fitness levels ticking over though, and by the time England’s World Cup opener rolls around, his sharpness should have returned.
While Hodgson is expected to rotate his side during this week’s friendlies with Ecuador and Honduras, Rooney will surely feature in both games, and unlike in both 2006 and 2010, he is not trying to rebuild his fitness following a lengthy lay-off caused by a fracture.
By a week on Saturday, Rooney should be fit, and while Manchester United’s struggles meant he found himself out of the headlines for large periods of last season, it should be remembered that he still finished the campaign with 17 Premier League goals, five more than Robin van Persie.
He remains a hugely talented forward. The key question is whether he is a hugely talented forward able to slot into a place in the England team.
Throughout Rooney’s decade-long England career, the issue of where to play him has never been successfully resolved.
The move away from a traditional 4-4-2 has meant that strikers are expected to play much more specialist roles now, and there is a mounting weight of evidence that suggests Rooney tends to fall between a number of different stools.
He is not what you might term a ‘traditional number nine’ because he lacks the explosive burst of pace required to play on the shoulder of the last defender, in the manner of a Daniel Sturridge or even a Jermain Defoe, and has never been a target man like Rickie Lambert or Andy Carroll.
He is also far too positionally indisciplined to act as the leader of the line. He has fulfilled the role before for England, and to decent effect, particularly in World Cup qualifiers, but his tendency to roam means the side often lacks an attacking focal point when Rooney is the main centre-forward.
As a result, most managers have opted to use the 28-year-old as a ‘trequartista’, performing what is often referred to as the ‘number ten role’ behind a lone striker.
That was Rooney’s remit on Friday night, and for the majority of England’s matches in their most recent qualifying campaign. It is also likely to be where Hodgson stations him against Italy.
The role affords him the freedom to wander, and should play to his instinctive, creative strengths. He has spent most of his time there for club and country in the last five or six years, yet it is still impossible to say that it truly suits him.
He doesn’t really knit play together in that position, and has rarely shown signs of developing a strong relationship with whoever is playing in front of him. When he drifts out wide or drops deep, he can pull opposition defenders into places they don’t really want to go. At the same time, however, he can also get in the way of England’s other attackers and completely unbalance the structure of his own team.
Would he be better out wide in a 4-3-3? Sir Alex Ferguson used him in that position successfully in a number of European away games, but whereas the Manchester United boss was able to stress the need for positional discipline, whenever Rooney pulls on an England shirt, he turns into the schoolboy who wants to run here, there and everywhere.
It would be too big a risk to field Rooney out wide in Brazil as it would potentially expose the full-back behind him to all kinds of problems unless he was willing to diligently track back.
Should he be playing in the hole? There will eventually have to be a limit to how many chances he gets, but a lack of viable alternatives mitigates against dropping him this time around.
Ross Barkley could be a rampaging attacking midfielder in the future, but for all his youthful promise, this is not the time to be pitching him in. Raheem Sterling played in a central role successfully for Liverpool towards the end of last season, but his optimum position surely remains out wide.
For all his previous failings, Rooney remains England’s best bet playing on the shoulder of Sturridge. For better or worse, the obsession continues.