Brian Bowler argues that for England to excel in Brazil, Wayne Rooney must be dropped from the national side’s starting eleven.
In the summer of 2004, a young Everton striker announced himself onto the world stage of international football at the UEFA European Championships in Portugal. Wayne Rooney bagged a brace of goals against both Croatia and Switzerland in the group stages of the tournament, before injury forced the emerging talent out of the quarter-final against the host nation. England eventually lost the game on penalties, but Rooney had made his impression and what followed was a big money move to Manchester United as well as a reputation as Europe’s brightest young talent.
It is rather ironic then that it is Rooney’s inept performances at major tournaments since that is seen as his biggest failure. His record at World Cups and European Championships reads like a list of what not to do at major competitions. In 2006 he was injured coming into the tournament, performed well below par, and ended it by looking on from the sidelines after being sent off for a petulant stamp to Ricardo Carvalho’s nether regions. 2010 saw another series of dismal performances, with Rooney’s most memorable moment being an expletive filled rant aimed towards England fans following a dour scoreless draw against Algeria. Most recently in 2012, Rooney was suspended for the opening two group games in the European Championships following another ill-timed kick to an opponents and subsequent red card. His return to the England team did little to aid their cause and they meagrely exited at the quarter-final stage.
Since his breakthrough ten years ago, Rooney’s record at major tournaments reads:
Played – 10, Scored – 1.
This is hardly a record befitting a world class striker and begs the question; is Rooney the player England should be relying on for this year’s World Cup? Roy Hodgson has garnered a lot of praise since his squad was announced last week. His decision to opt for youth and form over experience has seen many fans and pundits seeing this tournament as a turning point, or to use one of football’s most worn out clichés, a transitional period.
In come the likes of Barkley, Lallana, Shaw, Sterling and Henderson with stalwarts such as Cole, Carrick and Defoe being left at home. This youthful injection has brought a certain level of excitement which was lacking when the draw for the tournament was made back in December. However, even the most optimistic of English supporters would surely be happy with just a positive showing in Brazil, given their pathetic performances in recent outings. For this reason Hodgson should be giving his young players some major playing time, not just bringing them along for the sake of it. There is a core of young players who have made the breakthrough in the past couple of seasons, and they will be the backbone of England’s team for several years.
For these reasons Rooney should not be included in the starting XI in Brazil. We all know what the Manchester United striker can do. What we do not know however is what other players can do if Rooney is left out.
When Juan Mata made the short journey from London to Manchester this past transfer window, initial excitement at the purchase turned to concern: how can Mata, Rooney and Van Persie fit into one team? And what about Kagawa, Welbeck and Januzaj? It is perhaps a bit early to say how this predicament will unfold, especially now that Louis Van Gaal has taken over the reins at Old Trafford. However, Roy Hodgson has a similar puzzle to solve with the England national team.
There are two scenarios in which Rooney can be used by Hodgson:
1. Rooney is played up front as a number nine.
The problem with this is what it means for Daniel Sturridge, England’s top goalscorer in the Premier League this season. Given that Hodgson will almost certainly opt for a three-man midfield, it is unlikely he will be able to play with two out and out strikers. So does he move Sturridge to a wide position?
Since Sturridge has been moved to a more central striker position at Liverpool, he has improved massively. He was misused by Chelsea, only making cameo appearances on the wing. It would be foolish for Hodgson therefore to move him from the position where he has been in lethal form over the past 18 months.
It could also be argued that Sturridge actually offers more than Rooney as a number nine. The Liverpool hit man has searing pace which causes opposition defences to sit deeper allowing Liverpool’s midfielders more room to move and create. Rooney’s natural game is to come looking for the ball, which tends to clog up the final third and inhibits his teammates from getting into dangerous positions themselves.
2. Employ Rooney as a number ten, controlling things from behind Sturridge.
We have seen Rooney play this position to some effect over recent years, but in the bigger games against better defences and midfields he tends to go missing from matches. Rooney is a very intimidating player to play against, but he can also be rather intimidating to play with. It is quite easy to imagine a situation arising where someone like Lallana, Barkley or Sterling feel almost obliged to give the ball to Rooney, rather than opting to try something themselves.
We have seen how both Liverpool and to a lesser degree Southampton have excelled this season by playing quick, fluid attacking football, with players constantly moving around to create space and when done right this leads to very creative football. As good a player as Rooney is, he often slows the game down, taking an extra touch rather than giving the ball and moving for the return pass.
As mentioned earlier, England are not (in all likelihood) going to win this World Cup but the potential is in the squad to put in some very positive performances and build towards a better future. The German, Spanish and Brazilian teams may be well ahead of England at the moment but, if managed correctly, this England team could be very competitive in the near future. For this to happen, Hodgson has to make some tough decisions, one of which should be to drop Rooney from his starting XI.
Is Rooney England’s most talented player? Possibly.
Is Rooney England’s best goal scoring threat? Probably.
However, for England to excel and move forward Rooney needs to be left out. For what it’s worth, it is my opinion that a midfield three of Gerrard, Henderson and Wilshere supporting a front three of Lallana, Sterling and Sturridge would enable England to be competitive in midfield while allowing for real fluidity going forward.
Chances are, when England take the field on the 14th of June to open their World Cup campaign against Italy, Wayne Rooney will be in the team. But if his performance levels don’t improve on previous outings there is a chance he may not be there come the tournament’s end.
Brian Bowler, Pundit Arena.