COMMENT: The Manchester United star has never scored at the World Cup, is no longer the main man and the Three Lions should seriously consider dropping him to the bench in Brazil
It was on the international stage that Wayne Rooney announced himself to the world when as a young 18-year-old he took Euro 2004 by storm. His breathtaking power, his skill and his four goals earned the fearless teenager in a place in the team of the tournament and a few weeks later he signed for Manchester United for €32 million.
That tournament remains by far the highlight of Rooney’s international career.
Roy Hodgson spoke on Monday of the Manchester United star’s desire to make an impact in Brazil this summer and the fact that the striker has taken two fitness trainers with him to Portugal this week as he recovers from a groin injury.
The England manager added that “it’s not right to put the hopes of the nation on one man” – and he couldn’t be more correct in Rooney’s case.
After all, the 28-year-old has never scored a World Cup goal in eight appearances. He has 38 goals for England and is likely to end up their highest-ever scorer – but he has not produced when it really mattered.
He has entered the last two tournaments with questions over his fitness and his form and it is the same again this year. Rooney will recover from the groin problem that forced him to miss the last three United matches of the season and he will start England’s World Cup opener against Italy on June 14.
His 19 goals in 40 matches for United this season is an impressive record but there is still a feeling that he coasted through the second half of the season after signing a new €360,000-a-week contract in January.
Sir Alex Ferguson, in his autobiography, claimed that Rooney had “lost some of his old thrust” and his abilities could get “swallowed up by a lack of fitness”. The Scot also warned that it would take Rooney a while to get back in the groove if he was allowed a week or two away from the training pitch. There are plenty of attacking players in Hodgson’s vibrant and youthful squad for Brazil that do not have such issues.
If he is feeling really brave, Hodgson would consider dropping Rooney from his starting line-up and going with men on form and suited to a quick,counterattacking game. Just as Rooney burst through in Portugal 10 years ago, the likes of Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge have the capacity to make an enormous impact in their first major tournaments.
Rooney may remain one of England’s most talented players but he is no longer the main man. Especially with the heat and humidity such a factor, Hodgson would do well to pick players who are full of running and sharpness in the final third.
Sturridge has scored 21 goals in 28 Premier League games for Liverpool this season, excelling alongside Luis Suarez with his speed, technical ability and eye for goal. He should play for England in the same central role that he occupies for the Reds. Behind him, Sterling has been just about the most in-form attacking player in the Premier League in recent months. If Hodgson is going to look to anyone to make something happen for his side in Brazil, it should be the 19-year-old, who can dazzle with his quick feet, composure and decision-making.
Lallana is set to join both of Sturridge and Sterling at Anfield this summer and if England want players who are two-footed, tactically astute and keep possession then he must start too.
Rooney is unlikely to do a better job out wide than someone like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who plays with fearlessness and a willingness to drive at defenders, pushing them back and making it uncomfortable.
Steven Gerrard has proven this season that he is still one of the finest midfielders in the world, thriving in a deep-lying midfield role for Liverpool. The England captain knows that this could be his last England tournament, at the age of 33, and his experience will have to be the glue that holds the side together. Whether he plays alongside Jordan Henderson or Jack Wilshere, the veteran will have to show the same leadership ability that he demonstrated for Liverpool this year.
Gerrard admits that he is “absolutely devastated” that the Reds missed out on the title, especially after his costly slip against Chelsea, and he must work to make sure that he is mentally ready for the challenge in Brazil.
While England have plenty of exciting attacking talent, the defence picks itself almost purely down to the lack of depth. Long gone are the days when a Three Lions manager had to select two central defenders from John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Ledley King, Sol Campbell and Jamie Carragher. Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka will start at the heart of the defence, with Glen Johnson on the right and Leighton Baines on the left, although Luke Shaw looks a stronger defender and there is no point in taking him if he is not going to push for a starting spot.
In goal, Joe Hart has come into form at the right time for Manchester City and made some important saves during their run-in to winning the Premier League title, though it is unclear whether he will have enough protection to keep out Suarez, Edinson Cavani & Co. and help England qualify out of Group D, in which they face Uruguay, Italy and Costa Rica.
But there is no need to rely on Rooney.
Suggested starting XI v Italy: Hart; Johnson, Cahill, Jagielka, Shaw; Gerrard, Wilshere; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sterling, Lallana; Sturridge