Pitchside Europe

Only one man can stop Wayne Rooney's alarming decline

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In the first half against Norway, it was noted that Wayne Rooney had the fewest passes and lowest pass completion rate of any England player, and had the fewest touches of any player at all. He also went on to score the only goal of the match, and move ahead of Michael Owen in the England scoring charts.

But he, and England, should be worried. Raheem Sterling won the penalty, and is the first England player, since the young Rooney burst on the scene, to terrify defences with his invention, speed and fearlessness.

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Against Roma, in March 2007, Rooney sprinted past four players, holding off strong challenges to lead a counter-attack. He also managed to sprint almost the length of the pitch to not just keep up with, but catch up to Cristiano Ronaldo to score against Arsenal. Rooney used to not just play with the best players in the world, but sometimes threaten to establish himself as one too.

Against Swansea at the start of this year, seven years later, he attempted to recreate the Roma run, and got about 20 yards before being outmuscled and outpaced. If you didn’t get the impression that he has brought his lack of fitness, pace and strength upon himself, you would feel sorry for him.

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Towards the end of Alex Ferguson’s reign, it appeared Rooney had fallen out of love with him; now it appears he has fallen out of love with the game entirely. Perhaps the missed chance to join Chelsea could have reinvigorated Rooney, but it looks most likely that his decline would have simply carried on, and Diego Costa would have usurped him as well as Fernando Torres.

Most players at United get some kind of free pass for last season - playing under Moyes makes it hard to judge the efficacy of a player - but there's no doubt he wasn’t the player he should have been, despite scoring 17 goals. His touch had gone, his explosive pace had gone, and his passing had deserted him, save his speculative high pass out wide.

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Some time in his woeful first half against Norway, England threatened to attack successfully, and Rooney received the ball in the box. Daniel Sturridge was there, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right, and Sterling was available too. Rooney stood on the ball by accident. He briefly recovered, and then passed backwards, out of the box, and the pass was intercepted.

In the second half, Sterling picked up the ball on the left wing, and with his most prosaic run of the night - simply at a decent pace, slower than the simply frightening runs he tried in the first half, with brazen control and fearlessness - was brought down for a penalty. Rooney dispatched it as well as he ever does, winning the match. Indeed, at Swansea, he scored United’s equaliser with a decidedly not straightforward overhead kick.

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But piece by piece, elements of Rooney’s game have left him, either because he couldn’t be bothered to hold on to them, or because of something that he cannot control. First his speed, then his creativity, then his first touch, then his passing. With his lack of fitness now apparent, all he has left is his goalscoring. Contrast him with Sterling, and people might suggest that he runs with fearlessness, but a better description might be that he runs with confidence. For all his bluster, Rooney simply no longer seems confident. He rarely even gets angry anymore, not at others around him, and more worryingly not at his own failure.

With Sturridge, Danny Welbeck - who impressed in a brief cameo - and Sterling, England have a front three who can offer more than Rooney is able to. In Roy Hodgson, they have a manager who cannot reinvigorate him. Hodgson has never knowingly inspired, space monkeys notwithstanding. Rooney, however, once inspired England, and once inspired United. No longer. That has left him too, with almost everything else.

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At United, Louis van Gaal has given him the captaincy, and it has so far failed just as badly. Van Gaal is probably Rooney’s last chance now. A maverick manager who can kickstart a career if the player is receptive. That is still possible, but there is another side that Rooney must worry about.

Van Gaal is not worried about bringing a player’s career to a close, no matter how important. He might have appointed him captain, but with Juan Mata, Angel Di Maria (who set up three and scored a goal against Germany in his appearance last night), Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao, he won’t shy from cutting him if necessary.

Very soon, if this continues, it will be necessary. The question for England though, is does Hodgson have a similar stomach for tough decisions? The evidence currently suggests not.

Alexander Netherton - @lxndrnthrtn

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