Goals disguise England's striking flaws
Sunday 12 October 2008
It looks good in print. Rooney 2 (77, 86), but this is as misleading as the overall scoreline. The Manchester United striker took his goals well, but they were unusual goals for him, poacher's goals – a free header and a tap-in against tiring opposition – rather than something a bit special. The goals aside (a big caveat, admittedly) Rooney did not play well.
That he was voted Nationwide's man of the match suggests whoever chose it was either watching on Teletext, or is as representative of the financial community's judgement as all those bankers who sanctioned toxic loans. Rooney is one of England's most talented players, possibly the most talented. Successive England managers have, however, had problems determining how to best utilise his qualities. So, by his own admission, has Sir Alex Ferguson. Rooney's best position would appear to be in the hole behind the front man, where he is coming on to the ball and has space to dictate play.
For reasons of team balance he is frequently deployed on the left, for club and country. So it was yesterday in the first half, sort of. Neither a winger nor an inside-forward, Rooney was too deep to link with Emile Heskey, whose own mobility left much to be desired, but not wide enough to stretch the Kazakhs. With Rooney's passing radar on the blink England's attack simply failed to function.
Part of the problem was that both Heskey and Rooney are more provider than goalscorer. Heskey has five goals in 49 internationals while even after yesterday's brace Rooney has 17 in 47, a ratio well short of Michael Owen and Peter Crouch who average a goal every other game. Crouch watched from the bench yesterday, Owen on television in his north Wales home.
Owen has even maintained his scoring ratio while searching for fitness amid the car wreck that is Newcastle United's season. None of this cuts any ice with Capello, who has watched Owen several times and appears unconvinced of his sharpness.
He will be back, surely. That will be a poser for Capello, for Owen has usually looked happier working off a target man, such as Heskey or Crouch, than Rooney, but it will at least give the team a finisher. The flaw in pairing two creators, like Heskey and Rooney, is that someone has to get the goals, and neither looked like doing so until Kazakhstan tired. If the strikers are not scoring then the midfield need to. With Kazakhstan suffocating the area in front of the box there was rarely room for Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard to break into.
Their inclusion also cramped the space Rooney might use. Theo Walcott, meanwhile, was playing too wide to regularly threaten the goal, a position he had to adopt because Capello had selected a narrow midfield, an error compounded by choosing Wes Brown at right-back ahead of the more adventurous Glen Johnson.
Only once in the opening half did Heskey set up a chance. Receiving a pass from Gareth Barry on the edge of the box he laid it off for Lampard to take a shot which was deflected for a corner. Rooney contributed even less, his rising frustration leading him into dangerous territory, raising his arms to opponents several times.
At the break Capello rearranged the team, enabling Rooney and Heskey to become an authentic partnership. But it was in name only. Rooney was more involved centrally, laying on a good chance for Gerrard, and his presence there encouraged Heskey to work the spaces, but they rarely operated in tandem.
This was highlighted after Rooney departed. Heskey immediately provided a clever lay-off which Jermain Defoe ran on to and scored. That duo could be a partnership, based on the same complementary qualities as Heskey and Michael Owen, or Crouch and Defoe at Portsmouth.
"Like peaches and cream," said their club manager, Harry Redknapp. Heskey and Rooney, however, are like "strawberries and vinegar".
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