Should England sacrifice Rooney’s greatness for glory?
Posted by Featured Articles | Published on September 29, 2016
Wayne Rooney has been a household name across the world for the last 12 years. He has defined English football with his powerful, fast-paced style of play, as the spearhead of Manchester United’s attack throughout the Fergie years and into both Moyes’ and Van Gaal’s reign as manager. There’s no denying Rooney’s success at the domestic level, but international success is something which has eluded his sensational career.
Despite sitting atop England’s all-time goalscoring charts, with 53 goals in 116 caps, Wayne Rooney’s never been prolific in major tournaments, scoring just 7 goals in 21 appearances. He’s not the only player who has struggled to make any substantial impact on the national team of course; England have reached the Semi-Finals of a major international tournament just twice after winning the World Cup in 1966.
Why single out Wayne Rooney?
Wayne Rooney is the last of the “golden generation” still competing at the top level for both club and country. A generation which included the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and John Terry; all world-class players in their own right. A generation which we, as England fans, truly believed were good enough to bring home a major trophy. Of course, it was not to be; we blamed the Germans in 2010, when in truth we were outplayed and outpaced for the majority of the match; and we blamed Cristiano Ronaldo in 2006 for THAT wink when frustration got the better of a young, inexperienced Wayne Rooney. The 2012 European Championships served in some ways as a transitional period for England, as fresh faces were introduced to the International set-up. Yet, one thing remained constant; Wayne Rooney. Rightly so, he was entering his prime years, a time when most players enjoy their best football. Coming off the back of a prolific 2011-12 season, there was every reason to believe that with Wayne Rooney upfront, we stood a chance in Euro 2012, and beyond.
Though Rooney is considerably younger than those he shared the pitch with from 2006-2012, he’s been in the limelight just as long. Having started his first-team career with Everton at the tender age of 16, he then went on to make his first-team debut with England at just 17 – becoming the youngest player to represent England (a record since broken by Theo Walcott). That’s 14 long years of first team football in the English Premier league; 440 games in total; 603 if you include cup and European appearances. 12 of those years have been spent as Manchester United’s first-choice striker. At 30 years old Rooney has had a longer career than most, starting at a younger age and competing at the top level for almost half of his adult life. It’s no wonder Rooney’s performances have faltered in recent years; he’s quite simply worn out.
It’s clear that this premature exposure to Europe’s most competitive league has had an effect on Rooney’s game at an international level. Where most players – particularly strikers – would reach their prime between the ages of 27-29, depending on the age at which they started their first-team careers; Rooney’s early start meant that he hit his prime during the 2009-10 season, at the age of 23. It lasted for 3 seasons until 2011-12, in which time he scored an impressive 64 goals in just 94 games. As England entered the 2012 European Championships with a relatively new squad, Rooney’s form dropped, and he entered the latter stages of his career; aged 26.
It’s important to remember that a player’s “prime” is relative to the age at which they began to play regular first-team football. As I said before, most players hit their prime between the ages of 27-29, when they’ve had 7 or 8 years’ experience at the top level. Players spend those years refining their natural talents and expanding their tactical knowledge – a “prime” occurs when their body is in perfect shape and their understanding of the game is at a higher level, giving them an edge over their opponents. Players who are exposed to first-team football at a young age often hit this level much sooner than others, and of course reach the latter stages of their career much sooner, too. Of course, everybody is different. One could argue Messi has been in his prime for the length of his first-team career, but that’s simply down to his natural talent and unique understanding of the game. The best players adapt their play style to their physical capabilities, something which Rooney has failed to do.
When Hodgson picked Rooney for his 23-man squad for the 2012 European Championships, England fans across the globe truly believed he would lead us to glory; that with his domestic form and our newly-chosen starting XI, we could overcome the likes of Spain and Germany and claim the title as our own. Rooney was instrumental in securing England’s place in the tournament during the qualifying stages; not so much for his goals, however, more so for his influence on and off the pitch. He cemented his place as captain of the newly-assembled England team and proved to be a great mentor for his less-experienced teammates. His country had chosen him to be their leader and he stepped up with ease.
Rooney’s failure to produce in big tournaments
Come tournament time, however, Rooney’s struggles on the big stage shone through, and the England centre-forward scored just one goal in 207 minutes of football during the competition. England were without penetration; their lack of time spent playing together and tactical ineptitude left much to be desired and they crashed out in the Quarter-Finals after a penalty shootout vs Italy, despite leaving the group stages unbeaten.
There’s no denying Rooney’s technical ability. We all saw THAT goal vs Newcastle and THAT overhead kick in the Manchester Derby; on his day, there are few better players in the world, than Wayne Rooney. The problem is, it’s not been his day for almost three years now. Domestically, United have struggled. New managers have brought along new philosophies and ideas about how they believe the game should be played, and where Rooney fits into the starting line-up. There’s no doubt it’s affected his transition into the latter stages of his career, Van Gaal and Hodgson both shifted him into central midfield, retraining him in a brand new position at the age of 30, with little success. The media jumped on the bandwagon and suddenly England thought Wayne Rooney would be reborn in the centre of midfield as the “next Paul Scholes”. Of course, he wasn’t; Rooney’s passing ability is nowhere near that of Paul Scholes or even those he’s currently forcing out of the England starting line-up – Ross Barkley and Dele Alli. Yet, he starts ahead of both of them.
It’s easy to get dragged onto the topic Rooney’s domestic form, especially with how United are faring in the Premier League at the moment. Anyone who’s watched Manchester United over the last two seasons has seen his decline first-hand. It’s hard to watch such an amazing player go through such a drastic dip in form, but it’s happening. Only he can bring himself out of it. As I said before, Rooney’s influence on and off the pitch is incredible; his attitude towards the game inspires others to follow in his path and his brief moments of brilliance remind us of one of the greatest English players to grace our screens. Those moments are quickly becoming few and far between. It’s been a long time since I watched Wayne Rooney play and thought “what a game he’s had today”, particularly in a Manchester United shirt.
Rooney must look after his body and mind
As I said earlier, the best players adapt their game as they mature. Some drop deeper; Pirlo. Whereas some push further forward; Klose, Ibrahimovic. Rooney can play at the same level as all three, but he can’t do it as a midfielder. His body can’t handle the brutish nature of his game. The relentless tracking back and terrier-like attitude to winning the ball is admirable, but it’s damaging his body and his game. Rooney needs to pass the torch of responsibility and focus on what he’s so great at – scoring goals.
While domestic form plays a massive part in National team selection, Rooney is somewhat immune – after all, he’s the captain, all-time top scorer and most experienced player currently in the 23-man squad, he deserves to be there without a doubt. His role within the starting XI, however, is questionable.
It feels somewhat traitorous to say. I almost feel like I’m spitting in St George’s face and sticking two fingers up at the Queen by even entertaining such a thought, but, Wayne Rooney should’ve retired from international football at the end of the 2016 European Championships. Ideally, at the end of the 2014 World Cup – though at the age of 28 you’d be forgiven for thinking he had so much more to give.
The problem with the England National team is we’re too sentimental. We’re too happy to let a struggling player reach the top of the all-time scoring charts for his own benefit. In turn denying younger, fresher players the opportunity to grow and learn to play together in the qualifying stages leading up to the major tournaments. The England team selected for the 2016 European Championships was chosen to accommodate Rooney in an unfamiliar central midfield role. That’s what the qualifying stages and friendlies are for – refining a tactic and trying players in brand new positions. It’s not something to do mid-tournament and both Rooney and Hodgson should have known better. Ross Barkley – one of Everton’s top-rated players last season – was left on the bench for the majority of the tournament while Rooney sat on the left-hand side of a disjointed midfield, looking out of place, and out of sorts.
It’s a sacrifice, of course, preferring youth over a player who has been at the top level for over 10 seasons. We may not go unbeaten through the qualifiers; we may not beat the likes of Germany and France in friendlies; but when the 2018 World Cup comes along, we will have a team of extremely talented young attacking players who have worked together, in their best positions, for 2 years. That’s a huge advantage on an international level, where players only train together once every few months. It’s not just for the sake of the 2018 World Cup either. Each player has the opportunity to represent England up until Qatar 2022. That’s 6 years playing together, with one system, under one philosophy. For the sake of a few lost friendlies and a bad run during qualifying, it’s worth it. The new generation of both football fans and journalists are impatient, they want success, and they want it now. Football must adhere to that. It’s the reason why the game is getting faster, why formations are more attacking than they ever were. But at the same time, we, as fans, must educate ourselves. We must understand that there isn’t a quick fix to England’s problems. It takes time, and it’s certainly not going to be easy.
Dropping Rooney will not solve all of England’s problems
It’s not all Rooney’s fault, I don’t want it to come across that way. He’s simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. England’s transition into a footballing powerhouse is well underway, and Wayne Rooney must accept that his time captaining the England National team is over. He is a greatly influential individual, whose experience is incredible and that alone is what is keeping him in the England locker room, as a mentor. It’s his decline into mediocrity and his unwilling to accept that he is no longer the world-class centre-forward he was 4 years ago, which is holding back England. It’s the England coaching staff’s inability to do the necessary and push Rooney into stepping down from the starting XI for the better of the team. Allowing him to break records, to become England’s most capped player and all-time leading scorer is only making it harder to do so in the future. Sam Allardyce must take action now, Rooney must realise that his personal sacrifice will do much more for his country than he can do on the pitch. Business is brutal, and England need to get back into the business of challenging for major trophies.
It happens in all careers, in all walks of life. Football is no different. If anything, it happens sooner. Changing of the old guard is something we see year in, year out. It’s a natural transition, but it brings about turbulent times. Thanks to their exceptional youth setup, Germany are now reaping the benefits of allowing a younger team to gel, just as Spain did in the early 2000s. England has that youth setup, but we’re still clinging onto the old guard as though our lives depend on it.
English football will thrive once again, but we must allow it to; there will be heartbreaking defeats, there will be embarrassing moments, but at the end, there will be glory.
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