England's strength lies at feet of Rooney

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The Independent Online

Pick your favourite moments from the last week's World Cup qualifiers and it would be hard to look beyond the two brilliant runs by Wayne Rooney that made England's third goal against Northern Ireland and the first against Azerbaijan on Wednesday night.

Pick your favourite moments from the last week's World Cup qualifiers and it would be hard to look beyond the two brilliant runs by Wayne Rooney that made England's third goal against Northern Ireland and the first against Azerbaijan on Wednesday night.

They were proof at least that, while Sunday league-style thrashings are rare in international football, the truly great can always make their peers look like humble park players.

While Sven Goran Eriksson contemplates what must qualify as one of the most lavishly rewarded five months' holiday in English corporate life - his side's next competitive game is against Wales on 3 September - he will acknowledge that the last two matches have confirmed that the centre of this England team, its core of raw creative talent, is no longer centred upon David Beckham, or any of the old guard, but at the feet of the astonishing talents of Rooney.

There was simply no question that England looked at their most dangerous against Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan when they displayed the pace and cunning to get behind their opposition and reach the byline and it was Rooney who did that to the greatest effect. The 19-year-old can no longer be considered a secret weapon or even just a goalscorer; he has become the elemental part of the side and initiates its best attacking rhythms from deep just as surely as he finishes them in the penalty area.

Against Azerbaijan it was possible to witness two different England styles operating in the same match. There was the roaming danger of Rooney, who gave the attack pace, width and a measure of unpredictability and then there was the orthodox offensive that was launched from Beckham's boot on the right wing. His service was a good deal more reliable than it had been against Northern Ireland, but as a potential World Cup-winning device it was dwarfed by the England No 9.

A week in which the England captain scored his 16th international goal and busied himself to the point of exhaustion in service of his country might not seem like the best time to challenge his pre-eminence, but the side is changing beyond his control. Eriksson said that "even a Swede can lose his patience" when he was questioned about his captain's role again on Wednesday night, but no one at St James' Park could fail to acknowledge the substantial difference between a Beckham-led attack and one built by Rooney.

From Beckham, England get in the main prudence in possession and the long, dipping crosses that, for all the problems they cause goalkeepers, are not necessarily suited to the strengths of Michael Owen and Rooney. While Azerbaijan could hardly be described as confident under that bombardment, their discomfort was increased immeasurably by the kind of threat that was posed by Rooney in possession. His ability to beat an opponent throws even the most careful plan of containment into chaos.

No argument could be sustained for disposing of Beckham before the World Cup - and there would be more chance of Eriksson ordering the squad to hitch-hike to Germany - but the team does now have to think of itself in different terms. England should be built and designed to serve Rooney, not Beckham, and the team should fall into line accordingly to accommodate the talent of its outstanding player.

In defence of Beckham, Steven Gerrard was among the most eloquent, pointing out that "people expect him to whip free-kicks into the top corner every time he goes onto the field". "I think the criticism he is getting is a little bit unfair," he added. "He leads by example, he works hard even when he is not playing particularly well and I enjoy playing with him." Quite so, but this is no longer an England team that needs to be in thrall to its captain.

Eriksson was asked after the match whether he had come to rely too heavily on the game-changing attributes of Rooney and his reply was instructive. The England coach admitted that his side could rely on Rooney "too often" but added: "All the teams who win a big trophy, it is one star who can do something extra. I think we are more than one star, but Wayne Rooney is something extra and in one and a half years more, hopefully, he will be even better."

There are those in the England camp who are concerned that the side needs a second option, most critically a holding player in the mould of Claude Makelele to play at the base of a midfield diamond that would allow Rooney to play behind the strikers. No one, not even Beckham, should prove indispensable in reconfiguring the England team around its greatest player. "One star" is how Eriksson regards the status of Rooney with England and that should also be reflected in the kind of team he selects.

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