Rooney role proves pivotal to Capello's new direction

Italian's tinkering elevates him from buffoon to tactical genius... for now
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The Independent Football

Note to doubters everywhere: for "buffoon" and "monster" please reinstate "genius" and "god". And replace jackass photomontage with wise old fox. At least until Tuesday night.

Fabio Capello, the football manager with the biography subtitled "Portrait of a Winner", is back in favour, until the next time England suffer a less convincing result than Friday's ultimately comfortable 4-0 win over Bulgaria; then the name-calling can begin all over again.

Like just about all his predecessors at one time or another, Capello has become understandably touchy about this nonsense, and in the immediate aftermath of Friday's success in the opening European Championship qualifying game he was speaking from a position of strength. Not only had an important result gone his way, but his choice of system and personnel had been largely vindicated too.

It was still possible to claim that he had been fortunate, in that Jermain Defoe, scorer of England's first hat-trick since Theo Walcott in Zagreb almost two years ago, was only playing because of the injury to Bobby Zamora (if not Peter Crouch). Similarly, the successful partnership between Steven Gerrard and Gareth Barry in the centre of midfield would almost certainly not have been constructed in the same way had Frank Lampard not been another of the five drop-outs after the squad was named last weekend.

If managers have to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous injuries – and little account is ever taken of those that effectively cost Steve McClaren the England job – then they should be allowed a modicum of credit when such apparent mishaps turn out for the best.

Capello still had to come up with the best formula from the available options and he used his experience in that field to good effect. He was even able to explain more lucidly than normal the key to it all, which was Wayne Rooney's role. "Rooney's movement was always free but this time I asked him to come back more," he explained. "Play in the hole with [James] Milner left and Theo [Walcott] right. It was a good position. But it depends on which style opponents play. If they play one man in front of the back-four, it's not so easy."

The point being that Bulgaria's two centre-halves were never sure whether either of them should move out and cover Rooney when he dropped a little deeper than Defoe, or rely on a midfielder to pick him up.

A clever player in the Rooney role can flit into the space between the opposition's back-line and midfield and make use of it to good effect. That he clearly did, contributing to all four goals with his passes for first Ashley Cole, then Defoe and Adam Johnson. It is the ideal place for him, allowing him to employ that vision and be much more involved in the game, rather than risking isolation and consequent frustration as the main striker.

If it was a surprise on the train back from Wembley Park to hear a group of apparently sober England supporters berating Rooney's attitude as uncaring – they also claimed he had slunk off the pitch rather than acknowledge the crowd, many of whom have abused him during this season's two games – that probably underlines the depth of disillusionment with England's World Cup, which can never be eradicated. For as long as such disenchantment continues to spur on the players, it is no bad thing.

Rooney, among many others, was clearly nowhere near his best in South Africa, where it should be remembered he played 70 minutes or more of the last two games alongside Defoe, who outshone him against Slovenia but was equally poor against Germany. Caution should therefore be employed before heralding that pair as England's new Shearer and Sheringham or Lineker and Beardsley (Hurst and Hunt to older readers).

Capello made an important point in noting that Rooney will almost certainly find the going tougher against a team that fields at least one defensive midfielder assigned to fill the hole in front of the back four, or even to man-mark him; which if performed with sufficient vigour, legal or otherwise, can often send Wayne's world dangerously close to boiling point.

The one thing still lacking for him, as it was until converting a penalty against West Ham last weekend, was a goal and Tuesday night in Basle would be an ideal time to find one. It would be perverse not to send England out in the same formation, with only one change of personnel, necessitated by Michael Dawson's unfortunate knee injury. It was confirmed after a scan yesterday that the Tottenham centre-half is returning to his club for treatment, though there was no attempt to predict how long he might be unavailable. Bolton's Gary Cahill may be considered ahead of Matthew Upson as the potential replacement having been used at Wembley, where Upson was not, although Capello made the point that it was important for Cahill to have a first appearance under his belt and that to do so was easier in a team playing well than a struggling one.

The absence of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand is unfortunate, whether or not either can ever reach former heights. Both should be fit for next month's one European Championship fixture, at home to the Montenegro team that defeated Wales 1-0 on Friday, as long as Ferdinand does not suffer ligament damage from excessive tweeting. Having extolled the virtues of England's performance, he was at it again yesterday while, admirably, heading for a Saturday session in the gym: "Work while others rest is the way to get ahead, twitfam."

It would be good to think that the captain's return would help Glen Johnson, whose performance at right-back was one of the downsides of Friday's game. Although as keen as Cole on the other flank to charge forward, he shows far less discipline defensively and was regularly caught out of position, as was the case with most of Germany's four goals in Bloemfontein.

The Football Association could have done worse than encourage Scott Sutter, the right-back from North London who, unlike Mikel Arteta, was qualified to play for England but no longer is after making his debut for Switzerland on Friday.

It is just as well in the circumstances that the Swiss struggle so badly for goals, although on their favourite territory at a passionate St Jakob stadium, they should be stronger than Bulgaria and present the greatest threat to England in the group.

A second victory in four days would assuredly calm everyone down and might even have Capello smiling benignly at his critics again rather than inviting them to look in the mirror. There is an important game too for England's Under-21 side, who after a fine win away to Portugal, need to beat Lithuania at Colchester to make the play-offs in their own European Championship. The experience of another tournament, in Denmark next summer, would be invaluable for the young group. Joe Hart, a veteran of the last two, is testimony to that.

Didn't they do well?

Joe Hart

Has fully justified Roberto Mancini's faith and now Fabio Capello's. Was initially required to make only one save, from Glen Johnson's horrible miscue, then made two excellent stops in the second half, the first bringing a goal on the break.

Ashley Cole

His divorce having gone through earlier in the day, Cole could have been forgiven for appearing a little distracted but he was on his game from the start, attacking intelligently and almost scoring a first international goal at last in his 83rd game.

Steven Gerrard

Whether or not he can function successfully with Frank Lampard, Gerrard's partnership with Gareth Barry gelled well this time. As Barry, although not a natural holding player, sat deeper, Gerrard used his freedom responsibly.

Wayne Rooney

For a brief period before half-time the old frustrations were bubbling under but after having a delicate chip pushed for a corner, he settled to his new role "between the lines" and set up all three second-half goals with perfectly weighted passes

Jermain Defoe

Was this the night he came of age as an international striker? Club-mate Peter Crouch could only look on enviously as Cole and Rooney set him up for three fine finishes. Just as well that the groin operation was postponed.

Adam Johnson

Fierce competition for the wide positions means that none of the contenders can afford a bad game. Theo Walcott did well without quite touching recent Arsenal heights and Johnson made the most of his cameo, including a well-taken goal.

Steve Tongue