Wayne Rooney has been a fantastic servant for England over the years and fully deserves the record of England’s highest ever goal scorer. His rise from an 18 year old with huge potential to a linchpin player in the England setup for over a decade has been handled admirably by Rooney himself as well as his various managers, despite a few wobbles over his club career. Several players have been hyped up as teenagers and fallen away due to expectation and ego – but Rooney has taken his game and evolved it as he has aged, allowing for his drop off in pace.
In 514 games for his club, Rooney has netted 245 times at a rate of 0.47 goals per game, an impressive number considering the longevity of his career and the difficult injuries he has had to deal with. However, these goals have come predominantly as a centre forward and that has always been Rooney’s best position. Unfortunately for him, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are the future at Manchester United and are both in better goal scoring form, whilst the in form men, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy, as well as Daniel Sturridge and Rashford are all more suited to playing up front than Rooney. Towards the end of Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure at Old Trafford, the Scotsman began deploying Rooney in the number 10 position behind Robin Van Persie, Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov – at different stages – and this was usually met with success. Rooney was able to collect the ball from the likes of Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher and spray balls to the wings, play in the strikers or run at defenders and shoot. His ability to play passes across the pitch and shoot was put to its best effect, whilst his lessening pace was less costly to United’s well-known counter attacking wing play.
However, this changing style and position has now landed him in the heart of Manchester United and England’s midfield – a step too far, even for someone as adaptable and willing to take on new challenges as captain of both his club and country. In his two full games against Russia and Wales and 34 minutes vs. Slovakia, Rooney was hailed by some as an excellent player in the centre of midfield. And whilst his long passing has been regarded as Scholes-esque, the other key aspects of a centre midfielder’s performance have been lacking and have slowed England down heavily. Rooney’s average pass length is 22m, three metres more than Toni Kroos and seven more than Andres Iniesta. Rooney also has the second lowest pass completion of those midfielders at 45% compared to Kroos’ 100%, Iniesta’s 88% as well as Eric Dier’s 70%. Whilst it may be harsh to compare Rooney to these established centre midfielders, that is the competition England should be competing with at this level and Dier, England’s defensive midfielder, is fulfilling that role whilst contributing more defensively than his captain. Dier makes an average of 2.33 interceptions per game, second only to Luka Modric’s 3.5 – staking his claim as the best, and most complete, midfielder in the world – able to defend, pass, cross and score. Rooney makes 0.67. His role at the centre of midfield for Manchester United at the end of Louis Van Gaal’s tenure was a success but that was more down to the style the Dutchman implemented, with slow build up and a compact midfield.
More encouragingly, however, Rooney is able to boast impressive stats in successful take-ons and shots, second and third respectively of the five midfielders. This further makes the case that he is still best suited to the attacking midfielder’s role and his creative ability can be better harnessed whilst relinquishing him of excessive defensive duties. He has played the fewest forward passes per game, 30.67, compared to Dier (55.33), Iniesta (55.5), Modric (37) and Kroos (80.5), a key role for the deep lying playmaker that Rooney is supposed to be next to Dier. Fashionably described as a ‘vertical pass’, it is a skill that the established midfielders have been harnessing for years and that Dier has picked up from both his education in Portugal and coaching from Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham. Rooney created 10 chances in the group stages for England, three more than Nathaniel Clyne in second place, indicating that his ability to create can be put to better use further up the field. However, his inclusion depends on Dele Alli – who is superior to Rooney creatively and has the energy, at the tender age of 20, that Rooney no longer possesses. Whilst Roy Hodgson is right to be giving Alli a more advanced role, shoehorning Rooney may be keeping the captain happy, but is stifling England’s ability to attack in the way they showed they could vs. Germany in March. The more youthful look of Dier, Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson, Alli and Kane coupled with Vardy’s pace and the hardworking full backs in two of Danny Rose, Kyle Walker, Ryan Bertrand and Clyne allow England to remain rigid and soak up pressure then hit teams on the break.
So where does Rooney fit in? With Dier cementing his place, the ideal support for him would be one of Henderson or Wilshere. Whilst neither of them impressed vs. Slovakia, they would allow Rooney and Alli to play ahead of them behind either two strikers in a 4-2-2-2 or with Lallana, Rooney and Alli behind one striker in a 4-2-3-1. And if Hodgson was so unsure about Wilshere and Henderson, why did he not take Danny Drinkwater? The longer England last in this tournament, the more attacking teams will become – meaning the midfield needs to be much more solid. Rooney’s ability to create and, more importantly, score is more beneficial to the team than experimenting at a major tournament. His goal scoring and creative ability are his biggest assets; his Hollywood pass is his biggest frustration. Whilst the old boys network might feel Rooney has to play, it might just be time for Rooney to get accustomed to his bib and jogging bottoms if England’s manager, whoever it may be after this tournament, is to see any success on the big occasion.