Saturday 25 January 2020

Comment: Wayne Rooney the quarterback presents England with a new summer option

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney in action with Everton's James McCarthy
Action Images via Reuters / Tony O'Brien
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney in action with Everton's James McCarthy Action Images via Reuters / Tony O'Brien

Ian Herbert

“I have to be honest with you, I've not given thought to that,” Roy Hodgson said this week when asked about where Wayne Rooney might best play for England. An FA Cup semi-final has provided some extremely serious material for his consideration.

It told him that the ‘problem’ of trying to house Rooney within his starting XI - at a time when Harry Kane’s case for leading the line is indisputable and Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli’s supreme self-belief makes their own claims incredibly strong - is not such an intractable one. It was Rooney the quarter back we saw in the Manchester United side who for half of this game pummelled Everton so completely that Roberto Martinez seemed to have no road to redemption. As a vision of what this summer’s French adventure might look like for the national captain, it was a sparkling exposition in the late afternoon sunshine.

Rooney’s distribution of the ball has never been in doubt. He is the best passer in this land within a confined space in the final third of a pitch. But the delivery here came from all over the field and was virtuoso. An easy early brush of the instep to send the ball over the top of Everton’s defence for Jesse Lingard’s split second timing to step ahead of the defensive line and volley. An arced pass to the left hand channel where Anthony Martial waited with menace for the chance to maintain his destruction of Muhamed Besic in the game’s first period. This was orchestration of the highest order.

The acclaim he must take for delivering United a step closer to what would be his first FA Cup must be tempered by how catastrophic Everton proved to be when Rooney was wreaking havoc. Yet this distribution from the deep and the sprinting retreat to clear from the goal-line in the game’s fourth minute does not tell half of the story. The completeness of his contribution stemmed from the almost entirely free role he carved out for himself in the line of four behind Marcus Rashford.

He was in place to make that early clearance because he had lingered in the deep - and at no time was he hell bent on driving ahead of Michael Carrick or Marouane Fellaini. Stay or go: Rooney’s based his decision on that quality of instinct which, at the end of a season in which his contribution has been as scrutinised as ever, he can trust.

On the receiving end of all this was Ross Barkley – not only because Rooney was displaying the acuity and intelligence in his passing that Everton’s brightest prospect does not possess, but because his attempt to close down his part in the game was so forlorn. What Barkley’s experience would have told him might be a fight between the two of them for the central midfield turned out to be something far more complicated to deal with. One minute Rooney was alongside him; the next he had drifted deep or out to the flank, looking for and finding the pockets of space. The older man was blowing a little at times but while a deficit might have existed in pace and oxygen, there was none such in the ideas and imagination column. For Barkley, the experience looked tantamount to staggering around in a forest at times.

There were moments, as this all unfolded, that you wondered whether redemption might belong to Louis van Gaal, too. For an hour at least, there was wonderful balance about it all: Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard  weaving patterns, working their angles, the serial back-heeling which signals the supreme impudence of youth while Rooney patrolled, guided. When he was not going somewhere, he pointed the path out to another.

That United failed to secure a two or three-goal cushion was extraordinary; an indictment of their shocking profligacy and of the English problem which could confound all of Hodgson’s  hopes this summer: defending. They had been saved from the worst of themselves by David de Gea, plunging right to save the penalty which Tim Fosu-Mensah’s impetuous leap into Barkley in the area had brought, when Chris Smalling’s unfathomable attempt to clear substitute Gerard Deulofeu came in. Smalling had both feet off the ground and led with the right foot when he turned the ball into his own net. The trajectory of the ball told that only the left would have done it.

Against the backdrop of their second half comeback, the winner was brutal for Everton. It was, perhaps inevitably,  Rooney who set it all about - laying out the ball to the right and then waiting, seven red shirts back, to watch the unravelling. While the new generation raced to a mobbing by supporters, there was a circumspection about his celebration. He jogged up to join in. Perhaps the satisfaction resides within, when you are old enough and wise enough to know you’ve been at the game’s core.

Independent News Service

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