Wayne Rooney needs a friend right now, and after last night’s defeat to Italy he might find some sympathy from an unexpected source. Paul Scholes, whose accurate assessment of Rooney’s career arc inadvertently sparked the excessive vitriol to which Rooney is currently subject, knows all about the frustration of being shunted to the left wing in a major tournament to make way for younger, more media-friendly talents.
Scholes retired from international football at the age of 29 after four games on the left at Euro 2004, exasperated by the cultural vandalism that was Sven-Goran Eriksson’s decision to pick Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard ahead of him in centre midfield. Rooney, 29 in October, might be worried that his move to the wing is Roy Hodgson’s equivalent of a text message saying “we need to talk”.
That may not be the case; either way, Rooney’s career was not supposed to play out like this. If you said, while he marauding thrillingly through Euro 2004, that Rooney would never score a goal at a World Cup you would have been laughed or punched out of the pub. Yet that is now a significant possilbilty. In those days Rooney was a peer of Cristiano Ronaldo. In fact he comfortably outperformed Ronaldo at Manchester United in the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons. But Ronaldo overtook Rooney thereafter and now they live in different worlds.
It is strange that it took Scholes’ questioning of Rooney to highlight his limitations. He has not played particularly well for Manchester United since the autumn of 2011, and his contribution last season was woefully overplayed, a manifestation of the damaging cult of the England superstar that pervades the media. Inevitably, such is the way of things in this country, the failure to recognise Rooney’s modest form has now been replaced by an excessive, almost unpleasant opprobrium. In no country does the bandwagon go from 0-60 as quickly.
Rooney’s performance was mixed last night, as you’d expect for someone played out of position. His cross for Daniel Sturridge’s goal was outstanding, but he missed a good chance – the sort of chance he takes all the time when his mind is at his peace – and gave trolls more ammunition when he shanked a corner straight out of play. He also struggled defensively, though this is no surprise; for all Rooney’s eye-catching defensive endeavour, he lacks the positional intelligence to do an important defensive job. He arguably lacks the selflessness too.
We still cling to the notion of Rooney as selfless team player, justly engendered by some beyond-the-call work earlier in his career, yet in recent times he has made clear his distaste for playing on the wing. Rooney will argue that he has done his time and has earned the right to play where he wants; others will say his performances are not good enough to justify such status, especially with the emergence of Sturridge and Raheem Sterling.
Rooney’s defensive indiscipline is the reason he did not play in the hole in either leg against Real Madrid in Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season at Manchester United. Ferguson wanted someone to shadow Xabi Alonso, and Rooney had failed in the role against Sergio Busquets in the 2011 Champions League final. Against Real he played on the right wing in the first leg and was dropped for the second.
He may have rationalised his increasing marginalisation in Ferguson’s last season as the act of a vindictive man who was settling scores for Rooney’s transfer request in 2010. He may have told himself that Ferguson fell out with many great players, that it said nothing about Rooney. But when somebody like Hodgson does it as well, there is one inescapable conclusion: Rooney is not as good as he and his disciples think he is.
Rooney has taken a lot of kicks in the last few years. He is far from blameless – his fitness is not what it could be and there is a sense of an entitlement based on past achievements rather than current form – but he also deserves some sympathy. Whoever is to blame, Rooney is now in what may be an inescapable cycle of slights and sulks. He will feel everyone has it in for him: Ferguson, Hodgson, the English media, the English public, Scholes, even Dame Fortune. That is an excessive view of course but it does not mean the essential point should be discounted.
Of more relevance to English football than the rights and wrongs are the potential impact. Rooney is more vulnerable than is often realised; more than most footballers, he desperately needs to be loved. When he is not, he retreats into a state of affronted confusion rather than using the opprobrium as fuel. A red card against Uruguay is a decent outside bet.
Some people say Rooney was never world-class. This is poppycock. For most of the time between 2004 and 2011 he was a magnificent player, a force of nature with a combination of Diego Maradona-style bronca and beautiful technique. At his best, he was awesome. Yet something died in Rooney in the winter of 2011. He started that season outstandingly, scoring back-to-back hat-tricks and looking like a father figure for an emerging young side. Then he was sent off in a Euro 2012 qualifier in Macedonia and his career has never quite recovered.
He has lost much of the youthful fire and will that was an essential part of his success; even more troublingly, his touch has declined to an alarming extent. The days of Rooney charging past three players, or slipping a pass through the eye of the needle, have almost gone. Last night’s assist was excellent but it was not the kind of subtle pass that defined Rooney’s peak years.
On the face of it these are Rooney’s peak years. He is 28, but that is less relevant than the fact he has played over 600 games and nearly 50,000 minutes in his career. For all the high-profile injuries before the last two World Cups, he has not missed many games in the last 12 years. He has a huge number of miles on the clock, is naturally heavy and treats his body not so much as a temple as a dilapidated warehouse; he once admitted to returning for pre-season training seven pounds overweight.
The number of games Rooney has played means he is close to two significant records: record scorer for both England and Manchester United. Apparently they mean a lot to him, yet deep down he knows they cannot compensate for a career that has lost its way. He probably thought he was getting back on track when David Moyes built his side around him, with the captaincy set to follow when Nemanja Vidic left. Now Louis van Gaal is due to arrive with completely different ideas. Robin van Persie will be captain – Rooney may be the only man connected with United who did not get high on the high five between van Persie and Can Gaal - and Rooney’s touch may not be good enough to satisfy Van Gaal’s expectations of a No. 10, if he even plays with one.
Rooney was not just played out of position last night; he has been playing out of position for a couple of years. He has inadvertently evolved into a No. 9, a generally accomplished finisher and an efficient, almost frill-free footballer who is no relation of Rooney the No. 10. Playing right up front is now palpably his best role, yet to take it he has to displace either Van Persie or Sturridge. That is not going to happen.
He is probably not going to displace Sterling either. Hodgson has to consider whether an out-of-position Rooney offers more than, say, Adam Lallana. On paper the answer is probably yes, because of his experience and residual skill, though this not take into account the obviously dispiriting effect playing wide has on Rooney and the potential impact of that.
The next few months, with England and Manchester United, are of scary importance for Rooney. He is not helped by the climate of the media and social media, and will feel pretty alone today. As he watched Sterling play in the hole with the skill, arrogance and fearlessness he can no longer summon, Rooney may have felt like a man out of time.
Rob is covering England for us during the World Cup. You can buy his book, 'Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team', which is out now.
- Sports & Recreation
- Wayne Rooney
- Manchester United