A few years watching England teaches you that on the occasions when Wayne Rooney is substituted it pays to keep an eye on him as he walks back to the bench. Ahead, you mentally map out the objects that could fall victim to his unique sense of personal injustice. That crate of sports drinks. The advertising hoarding. The unsuspecting ball boy. As the hand of his manager reaches out, you can never be sure until the very last moment whether Rooney will grasp it or ignore him.
He kept a lid on it on Wednesday when, tired and frustrated, he was called to the bench by Fabio Capello on 69 minutes. Just as on those frequent occasions when Rooney loses the ball and pursues his opponent as if the player in question has abducted his first-born, the whole stadium felt the black mood of the England striker. Maybe he knows too what is increasingly evident: that Wayne Rooney will never be a prolific international goalscorer. In fact, if the game against the Czech Republic taught us anything it is that it might be time that we stopped thinking about Rooney as an orthodox centre-forward altogether.
First consider the numbers. Rooney's goalscoring record for England is not impressive – he has 14 goals in 44 caps of which 40 have been starts. But only when you average those goals relative to the amount of time Rooney has spent on the pitch does the flimsiness of the notion that he is the striker to score England's goals in the 2010 World Cup campaign become clear. Rooney's England career amounts to 3,102 minutes which means he averages a goal every 222 minutes or, roughly every two-and-a-half matches. On that basis Rooney should score four goals in England's 10 qualifying games over the next two seasons which is no-one's idea of a good return.
By way of a comparison, Jermain Defoe (five international goals averaging one every 222 minutes) has the same record as Rooney. The best of the current crop are Peter Crouch (14 goals, one every 117 minutes) and Michael Owen (40 goals, one every 156 minutes). If you think that Emile Heskey (five goals, one every 512 minutes) is the answer then be warned that on average you would have to sit through more than five England games in which the Wigan striker played every minute to be sure of seeing him score. That is the kind of time that Capello does not have at his disposal any longer. Enough statistics for you?
Take a step out the laboratory and consider the cold reality of Capello's options. As the England manager reached a tentative hand out towards Rooney last night when he crossed the touchline did he ask himself how longer he can go on putting his faith in his non-goalscoring centre-forward? The best teams in the Premier League are playing with only one striker in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation and if Capello and England choose to go that way in the future then where does Rooney fit into the big picture?
Capello called his formation on Wednesday night 4-3-2-1: to his annoyance, some of us saw it as 4-4-2 but what is obvious is that the England manager is moving towards something more expansive than the 4-4-2 formation that has been the default setting for his predecessors. You could forgive Capello for being seduced by the way Chelsea interpreted the 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation on Sunday in their demolition of Portsmouth, or how Manchester United used it to such effect last season. Football is changing, traditional positions are being redefined and if Steve McClaren can teach his FC Twente team to play a lively version of 4-3-3, then Capello is entitled to think why not England too.
Should that turn out to be the way that England are going, then who plays on the left-side? Not Steven Gerrard, who Capello argued was not deployed on the left side against the Czech Republic but in a free role behind the strikers. Rather it is Rooney who is best suited for the role on the wing of England's potentially new-look midfield. After all, it is a position he knows very well.
In the happy aftermath of winning the Champions League in May, Sir Alex Ferguson said a lot of nice things about Rooney. Like how he once offered to play centre-back against Chelsea – the offer was declined – and how he selflessly took up that role on the left wing last season although it was not his natural position. Ferguson duly promised he would restore Rooney to his place as an orthodox striker this year. Then when all the celebrations had ended and everyone had sobered up Ferguson proved how much he rated Rooney as a goalscoring centre-forward by spending the whole summer in hot pursuit of Dimitar Berbatov.
Restricting Rooney to the wing, forcing him to be part of a midfield that tracks back, is a difficult step to make. By its very nature it feels unnaturally conservative to place constraints on the player who is arguably the most talented on the pitch. The instinct is to let him run free and dictate the game but really Ferguson and his erstwhile assistant Carlos Queiroz were light years ahead of the rest on this one. They could see right through the clamour that Rooney was the greatest young goalscorer in England when they began experimenting with the 4-5-1 system in 2005. Three years later you can see their point.
It should not diminish Rooney to play on the wing. He has done it on and off for United for three years and now finds himself a European champion – even if he has had to learn that the world does not revolve around him. So far he seems to be dealing with it well although if Ferguson and then Capello ask him to do the same job again you can never be sure. Just as when he trudges slowly to the substitutes bench, it is impossible to know quite how Rooney will react to bad news.
What the fans are saying
Capello needs to realise that picking a team doesn't mean looking at who earns the most and throwing them in wherever!
Whpres06 – BBC 606
If England are playing the same players and formation and getting the same results, can someone explain why the FA got Capello (they could have saved money and kept McClown!)
Munsonbulldog – bigsoccer.com
I thought Capello would be the man to realise more courage is needed. Egypt won the Cup of Nations because their manager had the guts to drop Mido. Aragones had the bravery to drop Fabregas for the tactical benefit of the team at Euro 2008. Rooney hasn't played a good game for England since 2004 yet we still configure our attack for him. Bite the bullet Fabio!
SirThomasMoore4 – redcafe.net