Capello goes back to basics in attempt to crack Rooney riddle

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The Independent Football

Wayne Rooney should be every manager's ideal player and most of those who find themselves in charge of him lavish the striker with praise. There is, as Fabio Capello is only just beginning to discover, one major sticking point with having what we are led to believe is the greatest talent of a generation: where do you play him?

All that Capello was prepared to disclose ahead of tonight's friendly against the United States at Wembley, other than John Terry's captaincy, was that he would be deploying Rooney as "a second striker". Among other things Capello said it meant Rooney would be "more fresh" than usual when he found himself in goalscoring situations and, like most new tactical ideas on the eve of an England friendly, it all made perfect sense. The only sticking point was that when it comes to getting the best from Rooney in an England shirt, Capello has changed his mind every single game.

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Rooney has been paired with Jermain Defoe more often than any other striker in training over the past few days; Dean Ashton is evidently in the squad to try him with the Manchester United striker and, as usual, Peter Crouch will probably be required to prove he can play with Rooney all over again. Whoever Capello pairs with the striker, however, it will be his third attempt to crack the Rooney enigma in three games.

In his first game in charge against Switzerland in February, Rooney played alone in attack in a 4-1-4-1 formation to little effect. Shortly after that match, the word from the Capello camp was that the new England manager had decided his 22-year-old prodigy was not suited to the lone striker role. It was a conclusion that anyone who watched him gradually lose his rag in the role before his red card against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup quarter-finals might also have drawn.

Against France in March, Rooney was linked with Steven Gerrard in Paris – the Liverpool captain placed as the second striker in that attempt to replicate his partnership with Fernando Torres at Liverpool. The 4-2-3-1 formation was in vogue then thanks to Liverpool's success at that time but that too now seems to have been junked. So after two games of experimentation, Capello has admitted Rooney is better off as part of a pairing which – let's be honest – is that old favourite 4-4-2. It has not taken Capello long to realise it is pointless trying to convert the English to anything more exotic.

The England manager is entitled to experiment, but it does beg the question of whether Rooney is destined to be passed around this team like Gerrard – a spare chair that must be accommodated somehow. "I've said to him [Rooney] he has to work, that he's too generous, trying to do too much," Capello said, speaking English for the first time in a press conference. "He needs to focus to play in the best position for him."

Rooney will agree. He said before the Champions League final that sometimes he found his legs "a bit heavy" from all the tracking back required of him when he plays wide for United. The game in Moscow should have been his crowning moment but his substitution, and his solid but unspectacular contribution, meant he was more at the margins than usual. In the hole, behind a striker who leads the line, Rooney should be able to demonstrate the full range of his ability.

"He needs to be more selfish," Capello said. "Otherwise he's tired, not fresh." The England manager also said that he had seen Rooney play in a 4-4-2 formation with Carlos Tevez at United and, while it does not do to contradict him on tactical matters, it was hard to remember many occasions. As Sir Alex Ferguson said in most of his post-Moscow reflections, he has been amazed at Rooney's willingness to play out of position for the team, on the wing more often than not.

With Rooney paired with a strike partner in attack, that should free Gerrard for a role back in the centre of midfield. Capello did say that Frank Lampard would play tonight but it will be interesting to see if he starts ahead of Gareth Barry who is likely to captain England against Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday. As usual the players are not being told the team until this afternoon.

As Rooney prepared to be reinvented once again by an England manager his agent Paul Stretford's legal battle with the FA was coming to an end according to those close to it. The roots of that story begin in October 2004, around the time that Rooney, having set Euro 2004 alight before his injury, was still regarded as a traditional goalscorer at international level. Nevertheless, it is not just experimentation that Capello is interested in tonight.

"I always prefer a victory," he replied instinctively, having been asked whether a good performance would be more valuable to him tonight. "After a victory, it's easy to find a good performance," he said. "Psychologically, it [a win] is very important. I hope there'll be a lot of fans there and I'll be very happy."

For a man who does not give the impression that he considers displays of emotion to be a critical part of a footballer's job, Capello was surprisingly sympathetic towards Terry and his tears last Wednesday in Moscow. He even admitted that he shed tears himself once after a football match, albeit as long ago as 1979, shortly after he played his last game as a professional. "I was saying goodbye to Milan," he said. "A good memory.

"[Roberto] Baggio, [Franco] Baresi... these are big players who missed [penalties]," Capello said. "If you shoot a penalty, it's always possible not to score. If you stay on the bench and don't take one, it's easier not to make a mistake. I think all the players and the manager are strong when they play during the games, but the emotion is always there."

He was understanding, although he might feel less generous when England players start missing penalties in shoot-outs on his watch.