Wayne Rooney is well and truly an English enigma. Third leading scorer of all time for the most famous English club and fifth leading scorer for the national team; a player who has spent more than 12 years in the game and is yet to turn 30. His national team breakthrough at Euro 2004 earned him the nickname “The White Pele”; a few years ago, he was mentioned in the same breath as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Even if Rooney is no longer regarded as one of the best players in the world, the Manchester United talisman scored 19 goals and provided 15 assists in the last campaign; he was one of the very few players to emerge from the Red Devils nightmare of a season with their reputations enhanced. With all this considered, surely Wayne Rooney is England’s best chance for World Cup progression? If you ask the English media, then the answer is a resounding no.
Despite the result, the English media praised Hodgson’s bold, youthful selection against Italy. Instead, the majority of criticism in the aftermath of the 2-1 loss to Italy centered on the Merseyside born attacker as the media justifiably blasted Rooney’s performance. Aside from the assist for Sturridge’s equalizer, Rooney rarely threatened the Italians as the forward struggled to get into the penalty box. The one meaningful chance Rooney had to equalize he sent wide. Furthermore, Hodgson made the surprising decision of shunting Rooney, a natural number 10, out to the left wing, preferring Liverpool teenager Raheem Sterling in behind club mate Daniel Sturridge. Rooney’s failure to track back and help defensively saw Mattia Darmian and Antonio Candreva dominate the right flank; it came as no surprise that the cross for Mario Balotelli’s game winner came from his side. A horrible corner late in the game summed up a disappointing evening for the Manchester United star. Before the World Cup, only a small minority demanded Rooney’s exclusion from the starting XI. After the Italy loss, the movement has intensified with the media and many fans on social networks calling for Hodgson to drop Rooney for the crucial England vs Uruguay game.
But with qualification at stake, surely Hodgson will play Rooney? However, the anti-Rooney camp, growing in strength, number, and volume, can point to the supposed talisman’s lackluster record in big games, especially for the Three Lions. Since the fairytale of Euro 2004, where Rooney scored 4 goals as an exuberant teenager, the striker has struggled at major tournaments. His red card marked the beginning of the end for the English in the 2006 World Cup and Rooney failed to score again in South Africa. Rooney did score in Euro 2012, but it followed an ignominious suspension for the opening two games. Rooney is yet to score at the World Cup, and his painful miss in the second half extended the drought.
Under the barrage of criticism, Rooney has received support, from teammate Danny Welbeck to former teammates Paul Scholes and Gary Neville to manager Roy Hodgson. However, Rooney clearly feels the pressure of being made the scapegoat; he retaliated on his Facebook page, blasting the media for speculating on the reasons for him training away from the first team. Rooney also responded to the questions surrounding his place in the XI after the Italy game as he said, “Why would I feel my place in the team is guaranteed? I work hard to try and get into that team. I have never said my place is guaranteed. I don’t expect to play, but I work hard. I want to play.” The media’s obsession has clearly gotten to the forward, although the extent of its effect cannot be determined. With all things considered, the anti-Rooney camp has a credible case for dropping a player who on paper looks like England’s star man. However, Hodgson must start Wayne Rooney for the crucial Uruguay game- and play him in his favored number 10 role.
Rooney’s favorite position was taken by the young Liverpool attacker Raheem Sterling, who was arguably England’s best attacker against the Italians in the sweltering heat of Manaus. His pace and confident approach constantly threatened the Italians as he showed no fear in taking on and beating defenders. A performance reminiscent to Rooney’s in 2004, a comparison that the English media have seized on as they praised and championed the teenager. Sterling’s run to the starting XI came on the back of an impressive season with Liverpool; his starting place was deserved but no one expected him to force Rooney out of the number 10 slot. Although Brendan Rodgers did allow Sterling a freer, central role on occasion, the teenager spent most of the season on the wings, where he used his pace and dribbling to good effect.
Sterling could certainly mature into a world class number 10 in the future, but he isn’t ready to take the role on a permanent basis yet. Aside from the brilliant pass that freed Rooney to assist Sturridge, Sterling did not create enough chances for his teammates: according to WhoScored.com, Sterling only made one key pass. Sterling’s strengths clearly center on his breakneck pace and tricky dribbling; the teenager completed 4 dribbles, the most by any player. His dynamic movement and speed posed a threat for the Italians throughout the game, but his best moments came when he drifted to the wings, isolated against opposing full backs.
England, however, need a player who can dominate the game from the middle by linking up with the midfielders and by opening the game up for teammates. Rooney has shown time and time again for Manchester United that he excels in such a role. Every attack goes through Rooney, whether that is an accurate ball to the wings or a defense splitting through ball; Rooney averaged 1.9 key passes per game last season, creating 74 chances and ultimately providing 15 assists. Against Italy, despite playing on the wing, Rooney made 3 key passes, not including the assist.
To beat Uruguay the Three Lions need to control the game. Against the Italians, Gerrard struggled to impose himself as the Italians dominated the midfield. Rooney in a central role will drop deeper into midfield to pick up the ball and keep possession and as a result help dictate the tempo of the game. For all of Sterling’s many qualities, he cannot control or influence the game the way Rooney can. The game goes through the number 10, and Sterling is neither ready for the responsibility nor does he possess the passing ability needed for the role.
If Hodgson decides to stick with Sterling in the middle, he should then take the bold move of dropping Rooney. The Manchester United man is wasted on the wings: he no longer has the ability to beat defenders and his positional indiscipline will harm the team defensively. In earlier seasons for Manchester United, Rooney regularly played on the left to allow a certain Cristiano Ronaldo to start up front. Rooney is no longer the same player and such a position would limit and nullify the threat he brings. Rooney only had two touches in Italy’s penalty box in Manaus, further highlighting the folly of playing the squad’s highest goal scorer out wide.
How will Hodgson solve the Rooney enigma? Sir Alex Ferguson was not afraid of moving Rooney out to the wings or deeper into midfield to accommodate other players; he even dropped Rooney from a crucial second leg encounter in the Champions League against Real Madrid in 2013. Ultimately, however, Rooney is England’s best player. He might not be the prodigy from Euro 2004 or the world class striker of 2009/10 anymore, but Rooney on his day is still a formidable player and England’s best hope in the World Cup. As a result, Hodgson must give his star man the central role and allow him to run the game as he has done for the Red Devils on countless occasions. The young Sterling is certainly the future for the Three Lions, but Rooney is still very much the present. No player has the same hunger, desire, and fighting spirit, and fueled by the criticism and his own disappointment at his personal performance,Wayne Rooney will finally come good on the world stage if played in the number 10 role for England vs Uruguay.