Obsession with Wayne Rooney must end
The message to Wayne Rooney could have been no clearer.
Neymar, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben had shown England’s senior striker what needs to be done at World Cups. The great players are not visitors to the grandest stage. They write their names across the sky.
Not only Brazil’s poster boy and Holland’s R & R: Chile’s marvellous strike runner, Alexis Sanchez, and started this tournament with a flourish. Even Costa Rica’s Joel Campbell jumped in on the act with a boisterous performance in his country’s thrilling victory over Uruguay earlier in the day. Mario Balotelli is also on the board.
Rooney’s response? A quiet first half hour of confusion about whether to help his left-back, Leighton Baines, deal with a wave of Italian attacks or join the creative department further up the pitch. Just as the dump-Rooney society were starting to rev up, Raheem Sterling struck a sweet pass for England’s senior striker to deliver the perfect left-foot cross into the path of Daniel Sturridge to equalise.
But a painfully missed chance in the second half and another wild shot over the bar raised further doubts about his place in this England team.
All across this land, the spirit of Brazilian football has inspired the finest players at this competition to uphold the great tradition. England’s youngsters answered that call well, laying on some of the best attacking play we have seen from them at a tournament for years.
If you step on a Brazilian football pitch, it is not to go through the motions. Sluggishness, mediocrity and timidity are instantly exposed by the buttercup light in which the game is played in these parts. England were determined to join that party. Rooney, though, is not yet through the door.
In the launderette heat of Manaus, it was not only two vast rivers that converged. England’s past (Rooney) was meeting up with their future: Sturridge and Sterling, with Rooney shunted out to the left, a clear demotion for a player who, Paul Scholes insisted, belongs at centre-forward.
Italy were in no mood to comfort him. Though Glen Johnson offered a more inviting target down England’s right, Cesare Prandelli’s legion of midfielders knew they could nullify Rooney’s threat by going after Baines. So they pinned him back with repeated attacks. Rooney was thus caught between tactical discipline and an urge to join Sterling, Sturridge and Danny Welbeck in weaving patterns round Italy’s penalty area.
Finally he found a way to leave his mark, two minutes after Claudio Marchisio had driven the ball from outside the England past Joe Hart. Rooney was the player nearest to the ball’s trajectory but it was probably moving too fast for him to have any hope of stopping it. But still: he needed to do something – anything – to catch up with Robben, Van Persie and the rest. The rise of Sturridge and Sterling is also unflattering.
They have pace, quick feet, audacity, while Rooney increasingly relies on goals and a chugging kind of power. After half-time he was switched to the right by Roy Hodgson and also roamed more through the middle, where he shot wide and had Hodgson exclaiming on the bench: “What a chance.”
Comparisons are increasingly weighing him down, because he is judged as a player who was meant to be on the path to greatness but has never arrived. The curse of potential is that you are always assessed retrospectively.
To recap a painful statistic for him, Rooney has yet to score in nine matches at three World Cups, despite his generally excellent goal-getting record in national colours. Thirty-nine leaves him one shy of Michael Owen and only five behind Jimmy Greaves, who he has studied in You Tube clips.
A commonly held view of him is that his best days are already behind him. Taken further, the theory is that he is now clinging to his elevated status, and trying to justify two large pay rises at Manchester United, where Van Persie is bound to be the darling of Louis van Gaal, the new manager. Rooney must have watched RVP and Van Gaal high-fiving (or high-missing) each other in the Spain-Holland game with a rueful sense of his place in the new Old Trafford hierarchy.
Scholes, once media-phobic, now brilliantly sharp in his public offerings, had said: “I’m not saying Wayne needs to be dropped but if form doesn’t get up to scratch in the warm-ups, or in the first game of the World Cup, it’ll be interesting to see if the England management team has the balls to make that decision. We have quality forwards in the squad this time. That should give Wayne the competition he needs to spur him on a little more.”
Steven Gerrard, England’s captain, was among those who rushed to Rooney’s aid, dismissing Scholes’ remarks. That, in itself told a story. Rooney is now at the stage in his career where he needs team-mates to be nice about him – to defend him from history’s judgment.
Scholes also said: “To get the very best from Wayne in Rio, the manager needs to tell him: ‘Don’t bother running back. Stay up top. Stay centre-forward. Score goals. That’s your job in my team.’” The No 9’s position, though, has passed to Daniel Sturridge, and the No 10 role – just behind the striker – has also been annexed by Sterling.
The bigger concern was expressed by Scholes, who said: “There’s a chance he’s worn out. Wayne’s peak may have been a lot younger than what we’d expect of footballers traditionally. Age 28 or 29 has been the normal ‘peak’. With Wayne, it could have been when he scored 27 league goals in 2011-12 when he was 26.”
The relief for all England fans is that the one-man show has now closed. The news obsession with Rooney has given way to interest in younger, fresher names. An example, on the opposition side, was Balotelli, who joined Neymar, Van Persie and company when meeting Antonio Candreva’s cross to head Italy’s winner. Rooney is in a struggle to stay relevant.