World Cup 2014: Wayne Rooney 'obsession' could see Manchester United striker shunted out wide for England
The talismanic striker may have to make do with a place on the left
There was a time when Manchester United were so blessed with attacking players, in those three seasons starting in 2006 when they wrested the title back from Chelsea, that Wayne Rooney accepted the move out to the left side as part of playing in a successful team. Nevertheless, there was no other way of dressing it up: it was a demotion for a man who is judged by the goals he has scored.
In those days he played in a team that included Cristiano Ronaldo Carlos Tevez and, latterly, Dimitar Berbatov. In Champions League games, Rooney's threat down the left side gave the opposition cause to think twice and his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson was strong enough then that Rooney was prepared to take one for the team.
“I want to play in the position where I feel I'm best,” Rooney said in June 2009. “A lot of people think I'm best as a centre-forward. To play week in week out for Manchester United is a privilege and it's something I'm very lucky to be doing, but I don't think playing on the wing I can express myself as much as I like to.”
Back then, Rooney having to make the same sacrifices for England was unthinkable. He was the main man; the team's attacking focal point and when he was fit - and not suspended - he played. But in football, nothing stays the same for long, and when he was handed a bib in training at the Sun Life Stadium in Miami earlier today, it was with the instruction that he should take up a position on the left side and attack down Glen Johnson's flank.
Whether he plays there tomorrow against Ecuador is another matter, but it is enough to know that Roy Hodgson is entertaining lots of different ideas for his famous No 10 and not all of them involve the United man playing in his favourite position. Even Paul Scholes, at his most outspoken last week, did not consider Rooney moving out wide. But Hodgson has said time and again that he will not be dictated to by custom.
Wayne Rooney made his England debut over 11 years ago and is used to being the side’s focal point (Reuters)
The “obsession” as Hodgson calls what he believes is a fixation in the press on Rooney is a source of irritation for the England manager. Asked whether Rooney was an “exceptional player”, Hodgson embarked upon one of his trademark question-deconstruction responses. Give him his due, you would never have seen Fabio Capello attacking a question quite so diligently.
“You're saying he [Rooney] is an exceptional player, I'm not saying if he's exceptional or not,” Hodgson said. “I have picked him because he is a very good player and I think it's wrong of you quite frankly to now suggest you use words about him and you either want me to refute them or agree with them. I don't think you should put me in that position. I am not here to talk about Wayne Rooney, the person that you decide you want to talk about all the time.”
If this is the end of Rooney's time as an automatic first choice for England, then Hodgson is not interested in his role in history. He just wants to pick his team the way he sees fit. “If I say 'Yes, he is exceptional' or 'No, I don't think he's exceptional'. I'm wrong either way. He's a football player. I like to use him. You decide the epithets … I make my decisions on his performance. Is that okay?
It will be intriguing to see whether Hodgson goes with the formation that he deployed in training, with Ross Barkley as the No 10, Rickie Lambert in the striker's role and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right. Having originally said that tomorrow's game against Ecuador would be a chance to give a break to those less likely to play in Brazil, he has since rowed back and said it will be more of a mix.
Perhaps the left side solution will be temporary. Perhaps it will be Rooney's saviour, as he approaches his 12th year as an international footballer. Perhaps it will give him a simpler task to focus the mind - as Rafa Benitez would argue it benefited Steven Gerrard when he would use him there - and allow him to conserve energy for the moments that matter.
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Much of that will depend on how Rooney adapts to the task. There was a smile on his face as he strolled out of the dressing room that is ordinarily home to the Miami Dolphins players and returned to the bus. He will know better than anyone that his England future is the source of intense debate, and that the days when he was automatically perceived as the solution to all England's problems are long gone.
This team is changing, and Frank Lampard as good as signaled that his time as an international is coming to a close just as the curtain has fallen on 13 years at Chelsea. It will be unusual to see the ”unattached“ description after his name should England reach the quarter-finals and take him beyond the end of his contract on 31 July, but Lampard is at ease with it.
He will win his 104th cap for England tomorrow, as captain, although the end of that time is near ”I'm very proud and very happy to play for England, so I won't say it [he will quit after the summer]. If we go and win it, I'll probably hang my boots up! I love playing. It's kind of obvious it comes in the end. I'm just appreciating and enjoying every minute at the moment.“
Lampard is cover these days, and he knows that his role is also to help manage the younger players in the squad as the pressure increases. Rooney, by contrast, is not quite at that stage. It was at a similar age that Scholes was moved out left by Sven Goran Eriksson at Euro 2004, and promptly quit. These are big decisions for the England manager.
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