Wayne Rooney has so often been the subject of debate. England’s best hope and bête noire, sometimes in equal measure, in the decade since the Scouser’s international début in February 2003. Rooney’s electric performances in the following summer’s European Championships earned a £30 million move to Manchester United – the start of a period that set Rooney in motion towards global stardom. It is a promise only partially fulfilled.
In Germany two years later drama ensued, with Rooney breaking a bone in his foot just weeks before the tournament began. Rushed back into the squad amid national concern, the forward announced his return with the now immortal boast: “the big man is back in town.” He was – only to be sent off in England’s quarter-final defeat to Portugal for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho’s groin.
Eight years later and Rooney is yet to register a World Cup goal. In truth he didn’t come close against Italy in Manaus on Saturday night. It was a game that may just prove to be as much of a defining point in Rooney’s career as that 2004 Euro tournament a decade ago. The point at which Rooney’s star began to fade in earnest.
Roy Hodgson’s decision to switch Rooney to England’s left in a 4-2-3-1 formation said much: the United forward is no longer considered good enough to lead England’s line. Nor, it seems, to play ‘in the hole’ at number 10. Instead, shunted out to the wing – a position Rooney detests – the United player was subjugated to a supporting role as Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge starred.
So long the great white hope, Rooney underwhelmed, to leave Hodgson with a genuine dilemma: if Rooney is fit only for England’s wing, there may well be better options out wide too. Rooney’s place is no longer guaranteed.
After all, while Rooney was rarely influential as an attacking threat – bar a fine assist for Sturridge’s equaliser – the United man was often caught out of position defensively, drifting inside, and exposing England’s left flank. It was an exercise in tactical indiscipline that many coaches would struggle to forgive.
In truth, of course, Rooney is judged to different standards than his team-mates. The criticism leveled in the wake of England’s 2-1 defeat to Italy comes in the context of a game where few of the English team genuinely impressed, bar Sterling and Sturridge. Rooney was certainly no worse than any other England player in aggregate.
Yet, England’s talisman has so often failed to reach that next level either; to rise above the mediocre and deliver more. There are so many examples of an outstanding player dragging an average team to great feats. Just not Rooney.
Rooney has suffered for, and not lived up to, those great expectations. At 18 hopes were hugely inflated that the Liverpool-born forward would join the game’s élite. He has achieved much, and could yet break club and international goalscoring records, but it is a data point that fails to tell the whole story. It is a career that has come to feel anti-climatic.
And yet there is a paradox. Despite performances for club and country over the past three seasons that have rarely excelled, or even excited, the Scouser still puts up the numbers. There were 19 goals and 15 assists in all competitions last season – 16 and 13, respectively, the campaign before. He scored 34 in one season just four years ago.
Yet, there are also so few games that stand out in recent seasons; no dominant performances, little of the explosive excitement that marked the teenager out for greatness. It will, one now presumes, never return.
The forward may have run further during Saturday’s game than any other England player – a story often repeated last season – but supporters have long suspected that Rooney’s perpetual perspiration has permanently replaced the quality that has been eroded from his game.
Instead it was Sturridge and Sterling that excelled in Rooney’s two preferred positions. Sturridge led the line well, scoring a fine equaliser, while Sterling was a dynamic revelation behind his team mate. The Liverpool teenager may not have taken a traditional number 10 role – he didn’t dictate England’s play or tempo – but there is little doubt a new international star was born.
Rooney, meanwhile, simply chose to ignore his great failing – the indiscipline that leaves his manager wondering whether the Scouser is a greater defensive liability than he is an attacking asset.
“If you look at the way we play, it’s not playing out and out on the left wing,” said the 28-year-old. “You’re playing more inside, you’re coming inside off the line. It’s not really playing too much on the left.”
Except, of course, he should have been on the left, especially when Leighton Baines was repeatedly left exposed to Italy’s marauding winger, Antonio Candreva. In deploying just two central midfielders against Italy’s triumvirate Hodgson could ill-afford for Steven Gerrard or Jordan Henderson to drift out of position to cover Rooney’s absence either.
Then, late in the game, with Rooney finally pushed up front, the 28-year old blew a huge chance to bring England back into the tie. It was the kind of opportunity players of the highest caliber take in the biggest games. “What a chance,” Hodgson was seen to mutter on the bench. That it was.
It was left to Paul Scholes to rally in Rooney’s defence. This from the man who, in the build up to the World Cup, had openly questioned whether the Scouser’s best days are now behind him. Who needs friends, eh?
“The best position for Wayne is centre-forward,” said Scholes on Sunday. “If you think about the contenders at the World Cup and goalscorers – Holland play Robin van Persie in his best position. Brazil play Neymar where he wants to play, Argentina with Messi, Portugal with Ronaldo.
“He’s England’s best goalscorer but he was played on the left, played on the right, then in the centre. Where’s the confidence in Wayne to say: ‘You’re our main player. You’re our centre-forward.’”
Yet, the result and performance leaves Hodgson with a genuine choice – to deploy Rooney once more in a wide role, and accept that the player’s indiscipline could well cost England a crucial goal against Uruguay, or to shift one of his two best players against Italy away from the roles in which they starred.
It is, of course, no choice at all.
Come August Louis van Gaal will face a similar dilemma at United. It will surprise many if the Dutchman shirks the big decision. After all, Rooney is no longer United’s best number nine. That is to say little of the excellent relationship enjoyed between Robin van Persie and his international coach.
Meanwhile, in Juan Mata and Shinji Kagawa United possesses two classic ‘number 10s’, albeit of highly contrasting styles. Each will better contribute to United’s balance than Rooney.
It is an observation that leaves Rooney’s career at a crossroads. Revered for his goalscoring exploits, while reviled for his dalliance with both Manchester City and Chelsea. Rooney is man that remains the talk of the nation. Rarer, it seems, for the right reasons.
United’s bean counters are locked in a dilemma too having pressed home David Moyes’ desire to lock Rooney down to a lengthy and expensive new five-year contract. One presumes van Gaal will countenance no interference from above, but with the ink barely dry, United’s board is in danger of looking embarrassingly profligate.
Back on the pitch Rooney is no longer the big man. The Englishman may have to accept that his options have narrowed. Probably at both club and international level.