Written by Mark Docherty
The first match of Gareth Southgate’s tenure with England saw Wayne Rooney line up in the centre of midfield for the sixth straight international. The debate around Rooney’s position in both the England and Manchester United starting lineups is so hot at the moment that there was barely a mention of the fact Joe Hart kept his place in goal despite playing his football in Italy, and there was little comment on debutant, Jesse Lingard by the commentators. Foremost amongst the issues being discussed by Glenn Hoddle, Ian Wright, and Clive Tyldesley was whether or not Rooney deserved to be starting for England and, if so, in what position.
In my opinion, Rooney is still a good player to have in the England squad. Not only have his league performances so far this season been enough to cement him a place in the 23, but he adds experience to a relatively young squad. Especially now that England’s manager is also inexperienced, everybody will need a calm head in the dressing room to guide them through the turbulence surrounding the England squad at the moment. Rooney is the ideal man for that job, having now seen five managerial changes during his time as an England player. He has also won 117 caps for his country, making him one of the most experienced internationals in world football, let alone the England squad.
The effects of England’s squad without Wayne Rooney was seen in the summer, when Roy Hodgson withdrew him against Russia. From the moment the England captain left the field of play, it was evident that there were no leaders on the field to support the younger members of the squad. Gary Cahill was handed the captain’s armband on that occasion, just as he was when Rooney was substituted against Iceland in the fateful clash which cost Hodgson his job, but, if anything, he communicated less once he was appointed as the leader on both occasions. The entire team lost their heads, leading to Russia netting a late equaliser from a set-piece. Of course, we will never know for sure, but I am certain that England would have seen out the match if their talisman was on the pitch. For me, there is no question that Rooney has to be included in every England squad he is available for, performance permitting, as his influence on the other players can improve overall performance levels.
Now that we have established that Rooney should be in the fold for England, we go onto whether, and in what position, he should play. When you look at the players England have available to them, it really is difficult to find somewhere to play Rooney without having to drop a more effective player to make room for him. That could be why he finds himself being played all over the pitch by managers who are able to see that he is not the best striker or number ten they have available but simply don’t have the guts to start without him. Rooney spent the 2014 World Cup playing on the left wing, then the 2016 European Championships as a holding midfielder. It is true that he has lost his pace too much to be used as a main striker now, but I feel that his best position is as a number ten, where José Mourinho is currently playing him for Manchester United.
In my view, players should never play for their country in a different position to the one they feature in at club level, but that’s a different argument altogether. In his later years, Rooney’s best attribute has been his footballing intelligence. He is able to see passes a split second before other players and can make great movements to compensate for his lack of pace. Although this is evident when he plays deeper in midfield with his cross-field passes, the best place for Rooney to use his footballing brain is in the ‘hole’ behind the main striker. Rooney is able to find pockets of space for Manchester United and use them to play killer passes or bring other players into play. The days are gone when Rooney can be considered a prolific goalscorer, but he can still weigh in with a considerable number of assists if he can be given the ball in attacking positions.
As a holding midfielder Rooney finds it difficult to make creative passes as he has to contend with so many opposition players between him and the goal, whereas when he is played behind the striker all he has to do is find a way of unlocking the defence in order to play through one of the other attacking players. And there are few better in world football at playing the final killer pass than Wayne Rooney, he can identify movement from his teammates instantly and is able to weight his passes perfectly to create a scoring chance. This skill is wasted in midfield as he often has to find a way past ten opposition players before he can slide the ball to a teammate.
The main reason Rooney finds himself playing in midfield is his defensive work rate. As soon as England lose the ball he makes it his personal mission to harry to his opposite number and win the ball back for his team. Personally, I don’t see any reason why he can’t carry on his hard defensive work playing further forward. In fact, it is just what England need: they have seen what has happened with Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool side with their high pressing football. They put so much pressure on defenders that they are forced into making mistakes, allowing them to make scoring opportunities out of nothing. If England can implement the same style of play as Liverpool with hard working attacking players, they should have no problem doing to teams like Malta what Liverpool do to Chelsea. Rooney could be exactly the player to use as part of an attacking midfield three to force defenders into errors with relentless pressing.
However, although Rooney’s best position is as a number ten, there is still the question of whether he is England’s best number ten. Probably not. Dele Alli, Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, and Adam Lallana are just some of the players who Rooney will be competing against in the number ten position and, for my money, he is the fourth best of the five. The one trump card he has over his competition is that he is more experienced than every single one of them. Lallana is 28 years of age so he is new international new boy, but has less than a quarter of the caps Rooney has. This gives the Manchester United man an advantage, but experience must come second to performance levels, and Rooney will have to play out of his skin to stay ahead of his younger rivals in the England pecking order.
Mourinho has recently taken the grave decision to drop Rooney for Manchester United, and Gareth Southgate will have to be just as brave if he is to get the best out of his new England side. Unfortunately, Rooney simply does not add enough to the team to continue being the first name on the teamsheet. As a captain, his experience is invaluable and he is England’s one true leader, but he may have to be satisfied with helping the other players from off the pitch. If I were the England manager, I would use Rooney as an impact substitute in the number ten position, both when England need a goal and when they need some inspiration to see out a victory late on. Unfortunately , however, I am not the England manager and my opinion is unlikely to count for much. But Gareth, if you’re reading this – you know what to do.
What role should Rooney have? Let us know in the comments below!