From every seed planted in the earth a root sprouts. One root is followed by several, and eventually those roots culminate in life above ground. Branches are formed, leaves push their way into existence and the end product is something of beauty. Growth is a process that footballers share with nature, but like any living organism, growth has to stop somewhere. The whole of England is now wondering whether Wayne Rooney’s branches are starting to wilt.
At the age of 16, Rooney planted his first seed into the soil of elite football with a devastating strike against Arsenal that lifted the roof off a stunned Goodison Park, and since that day he has scattered the football landscape with his enterprise and endeavour for all to see. He burst onto the scene for England with exuberance during Euro 2004, he scored a hattrick on his Manchester United debut in the Champions League, he came second in the Premier League scoring charts on two occasions in recent years, and he rapidly became his nation’s shoulder to lean on at major tournaments. At the age of 28, when most players begin the ascent towards their peak, it is a worrying sign that Rooney’s glory days appear to be a thing of the past.
Every England fan from Blyth to Barmouth has had their tuppence worth on Rooney’s value to English football, and those same fans are now questioning whether he blossomed a lot earlier than is custom. Rooney’s best days were littered with purposeful football; running at the defence, spraying passes left and right and fashioning goalscoring opportunities for himself and his entourage of inspired teammates. His energy was infectious, his intent laid bare by a sheer desire to win possession back for his team, sometimes too vigorously for the referee’s liking. Those were Rooney’s branches. For England, we have rarely seen such a beast.
Wayne Rooney lining up for England. dafabetsports.com
The latest episode of ‘Rooney Watch’ kicked off at 23:00 GMT on Saturday in a Brazilian jungle against an Italy side bursting with character. Andrea Pirlo was at his majestic best, making sublime use of his wing mirrors to delicately, but incisively seduce the ball into spaces England didn’t know existed. Mario Balotelli was quiet for the most part but came alive when the impressive Antonio Candreva slid him through in the channels, or landed a gorgeous cross onto his head. Giorgio Chiellini, playing in a position of familiarity if not regularity, had few problems in quelling England’s attempts to use pace to defeat him, even when their best player, Raheem Sterling, was switched to the right flank. And Matteo Darmian, one of Italy’s lesser known contingents, cuddled the touchline as if it was an old, cherished friend and made total use of Roy Hodgson’s reluctance to provide Leighton Baines with added help.
All of the above make Rooney’s lack of industry all the more obvious. But for a composed, precise assist for Daniel Sturridge, Rooney was absent-minded and absent-spirited for much of the game. Baines’ insistence that he should keep tabs on Darmian and the floating Candreva fell on deaf ears, as England were repeatedly assaulted from that side of the pitch. Rooney’s narrow positioning left Baines, who also endured a torrid evening, horribly exposed. In attack, England’s best phases were staged without Rooney’s involvement. Sterling, Sturridge and Danny Welbeck combined nicely and it wasn’t until the 37th minute that Rooney sprung to life, if only temporarily. His pinpoint cross was emphatically tucked away by Sturridge to level the scores. Rooney would later go on to spurn a wonderful chance with the score at 2-1 to Italy.
Rooney’s performance was a painful reminder of his previous showings at World Cups. The natural response for pro-Rooney-ites was to point to the fact that he was operating in an unnatural position. I would pose the question; why was he playing in an unnatural position? The answer would be because he hasn’t excelled in his supposed ‘best’ position behind the striker, which for me is a drastic misunderstanding of his type. A role alongside Sturridge would reap greater rewards. Rooney is not versatile enough to merit his place in the team if he isn’t playing in his actual best position. His reputation precedes him.
Can Wayne Rooney fit into the current Hodgson set-up? Bleacher Report
I would also put to those people that, while the strengths of any player will be nullified somewhat if they are occupying a position of discomfort, so-called ‘world-class’ players like Rooney is purported to be should be able to adapt to what is asked of him. Lionel Messi drifted through much of Argentina’s opener with Bosnia and Herzegovina without dirtying his boots before erupting into life with a typical darting run and ruthless finish. Messi is a game-changer. Rooney has been talked into being a game-changer, but has rarely done such a thing for England when the heat is on.
It is a shame that, despite the negativity aimed at Rooney from England supporters in the days following England’s defeat to Italy, an impressive assist has somewhat smoke-screened what was a seriously turgid performance from an alleged superstar. One almost feels as though that moment of composure justified his selection to Hodgson, whereas I would question whether such a pass would be beyond the realms of possibility for Adam Lallana, for example. Indeed, Lallana may have given England more ingenuity in the first place.
Rooney will likely start against Uruguay on Thursday and he may well score the winning goal. But England are surely beyond the stage of hoping. It is now nine World Cup matches without a goal for a player comically compared to Pele by the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel last week, and his place in the team is quickly becoming detrimental to England’s hopes of progressing through a difficult group. Hodgson’s desperation to fit Rooney into his side is costing England a reliable attacking outlet. The time has come to delve into the shed, pull out the weed-cutter and relieve Rooney of his World Cup duties before another major tournament slips through the net.