There is a default setting among the England managers of the last nine years that Wayne Rooney will be the solution to all the fundamental problems of their team. Invited to look towards the future on Tuesday night, Roy Hodgson's response suggested he is thinking along the same lines.
Hodgson was asked specifically about how, as Rooney approaches his 27th birthday next month, he might be able to coax the best from the footballer who is regarded as the most talented Englishman of his generation. It has been a problem that has consumed Sven Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello and all of them – one way or another – have gambled on Rooney saving their skins.
Eriksson's last words as England manager were a plea to the media not to destroy the player, a day after Rooney's red card at the 2006 World Cup quarter-finals. McClaren's Euro 2008 qualifying campaign hit the skids with Rooney injured. Capello's 2010 World Cup campaign was hostage to Rooney's precipitous loss of form.
"We'll get the best out of him [Rooney] because he's desperate to play for England," Hodgson said. "He's an excellent footballer and he's a quality player and with quality players the quality is permanent. The general consensus after the Euros , and I'm not certain I totally agree with it, was that he didn't do well and he didn't play well in the two games.
"I'm not going to stand here arguing and defending and debating that, but I will accept that was the general opinion. I think I've got a very good player in Wayne Rooney and I know he is very anxious to do well for England."
Having just seen his team take 86 minutes – and require a penalty – in order to salvage a draw against Ukraine, the lack of goals was evidently on Hodgson's mind. He gave an interesting insight into how he views his own resources when he said that he regarded his squad as being short of goalscorers. "The sooner he [Rooney] comes back into our fold the better because we are short of experienced and quality front players in England. We are blessed with quite a few very good midfielders."
With 29 goals in 76 caps, 71 of them starts, Rooney is indeed the highest goalscorer among England's current players, if we are to assume that Michael Owen will not play international football again. But it has been proved more than once that to rely wholesale on Rooney, and the unpredictable nature of his form, fitness and temperament, is dangerous.
If England are to base their qualification for the World Cup in 2014, and indeed their progress in Brazil itself –provided they qualify – largely on Rooney, then that is simply offering up the same hostage to fortune as the last three tournaments. At Euro 2004, Rooney, at 18, made an impact that few had predicted. In 2006, 2010 and 2012 he fell well short of expectations.
It begged the question of an England team that does not rely on Rooney, a question that Hodgson will surely have to consider at some point in his contract with the Football Association. Although this England team recorded the national team's biggest away win since 1993 last Friday, the struggles against Ukraine suggest a problem scoring goals against better sides who defend deep. At the least it requires England to have different options.
"This time even with the handicap of being 1-0 down and with an experienced team slowing the game down we still kept going," Hodgson said. "We still kept playing and there was no resorting to the long ball in the hope someone would get his head on it. We kept trying to play for that goal."
Andy Carroll (eight caps, five of them starts and two goals) is presumably the man for the long ball. Ditto Peter Crouch (42 caps, 19 of them starts and 22 goals), now exiled from the England set-up because he turned down the chance to go on standby for the Euro 2012 squad. Crouch's goals-to-minutes ratio is one every 99 minutes. Rooney's is one every 194 minutes. Jermain Defoe only scores once every 123 minutes.
After that, there is a mixed bag. Darren Bent (13 caps, eight starts, four goals) is not a favourite of Hodgson. Daniel Sturridge has just three caps and has never started a game, let alone scored. Theo Walcott (29 caps, 19 starts and four goals) is yet to be considered an out-and-out striker by Arsenal.
The best alternative on Tuesday looked like Danny Welbeck (11 caps, six starts and two goals). Otherwise, at the very least some sort of rapprochement with Crouch, which will require Crouch to play his role too, looks necessary in order that the reliance on Rooney is not too acute.
Rooney could come back for the qualifiers against San Marino and Poland next month and prove to be match-winner. He may even carry England to Brazil single-handed. But it would be unwise to rely on that happening without some kind of Plan B.
On the Wayne? Rooney's rocky England ride
* Wayne Rooney has enjoyed – and endured – vastly differing form with England since exploding on to the international scene with four goals at Euro 2004 as Sven Goran Eriksson's side reached the quarter-finals.
England games played by Rooney since Euro 2004: 59 (20 goals). Games missed: 26
* Rooney's best run in an England shirt came during qualifying for the 2010 World Cup under Fabio Capello, scoring 11 goals in seven games between September 2008 and June 2009. His two worst spells saw him go 580 minutes without a goal between November 2005 and November 2006, as England struggled in the last days of Eriksson and the early tenure of Steve McClaren, and he suffered an even poorer run between October 2009 and September 2010, clocking up 12 games and 970 minutes without a goal.
* The Manchester United striker has particularly suffered in tournament football, only five of his 29 goals coming on the big stage. After his Euro 2004 burst, Rooney had to wait – due to injury, suspension and, in the case of Euro 2008, non-qualification – eight years for his next tournament strike, against Ukraine earlier this summer.
Net losses: England fail to hit target
Take away Frank Lampard's goals and England's struggle to find the net is highlighted by the totals of the 13 outfield players who faced Ukraine.
Glen Johnson 42/1
Leighton Baines 11/1
Joleon Lescott 23/1
Phil Jagielka 14/1
Ryan Bertrand 2/0
Steven Gerrard 98/19
James Milner 33/1
Frank Lampard 93/26
Tom Cleverley 3/0
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain 7/0
Jermain Defoe 51/17
Danny Welbeck 11/2
Daniel Sturridge 3/0
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