Rafael Benitez: I'm a big Wayne Rooney fan... but I couldn't say it at Liverpool!
Rooney is very unpredictable to play against, which makes preparing teams to face him a very difficult job
You will understand why I was not able to discuss publicly the technical qualities of Wayne Rooney while I was with Liverpool! But now is the time to examine in detail the aspects of his play which we can look out for and enjoy against Ukraine tonight. They make him an even better player than the one he was a few years ago. England don't have much time to prepare for the very difficult challenges beyond this group stage and Rooney needs minutes on the field, which is why I think Roy Hodgson's likely decision to start with him is a good one. There is nothing wrong with changing a winning team.
I remember the time when Rooney played only as a striker and a second striker. At Liverpool, we would use Javier Mascherano, Lucas Leiva and Xabi Alonso against him and they knew how to reduce the space for him to play the ball. I don't remember a game in which he caused us very bad damage. I do recall Carlos Tevez scoring against us for Manchester United, in successive Premier League games, though not especially Rooney. But the reason he has grown as a player is that he has now been used in different positions, as a winger and in midfield and that has made his understanding of the game much better. Now, if he cannot find space in the central areas he will go wide and play there anyway. It means he can choose what he wants to do.
He is very unpredictable to play against, which makes preparing teams to face him a very difficult job. The movement off the ball is very good because of his good anticipation. He really does make great runs and his instinctive understanding of the game – allowing him to do that – should never be underestimated. Not every player has that quality. There is a difference between a player who has great pace on the ball and one who actually has an understanding, as well as that pace. He is very strong, too. He can keep the ball, bring players into the game and he can tackle. He can dribble and pass, create and finish. It really is very rare to have all those qualities in one player.
People will be talking about Rooney's temperament and asking if it is right, because he will now have so much desire to launch himself on this tournament. Maybe he will try too hard at the beginning tonight but I think he will settle down. He is older now and has more experience and it will also help him that England will be controlling the game. The Ukraine performance we saw against France tells us that Rooney will get his chances and that he will not be an isolated player.
Ukraine started well against the French in Donetsk, with their 4-4-2 system, but a point of weakness was a tendency of some of the Ukrainians to follow French players man for man, losing position because of that, and creating lots of space for the French to get through. The Ukrainian holding midfielders could not cope with the gaps created at times. The difference between Ukraine and Sweden is that the co-host country are tactically not very disciplined. They cannot keep their team shape for a long time because they are not used to having to do so. Russia were the same, in the way that they followed players and left spaces behind.
This means that England need only be patient. If they wait, they can use their pace and go forward and they will get their chances. If someone follows Steven Gerrard man for man and is pulled out of position, for example, Rooney will have space to receive the ball between the lines on either side of the holding midfielders.
A little talk on Gerrard, here, perhaps, because it has been good to see him making such a difference even from the deeper role he has been assigned by Hodgson. It was not just the accuracy of the cross to Andy Carroll which was important for England's first goal against Sweden but his ability to give it just the right pace. The difference between quality players and the rest is their ability not only to do something with the ball but to do it very quickly. Even at the level we are now watching, a player can maybe see a pass but not play it more than 30 metres. Steven can make a 40-metre pass, with accuracy and the right pace. He can see the necessary pass and make it at the same time. That is quality.
I like James Milner very much, as well. He was doing a very good job for the team in the first half against Sweden but you could see that England had to change things because he had been working so hard and was tired. Yes, Theo Walcott had an impact but it might not have been the same if he had been playing from the start. By bringing him on, England introduced something different. People on the outside – journalists perhaps! – can get too obsessed with the 11 players who start the match. It was not just Walcott but the combination of the two players – Milner and Walcott – which made the difference against Sweden.
Silva proves to be king of the 'small people'
I have not had the chance to talk about Spain too much yet, though if England meet them in the quarter-final next weekend then there will be plenty of chances. On a personal level, it's pleased me very much to see David Silva in Spain's starting line-up at the championship and proving what a player he is.
At first it looked as if he might not make it as a footballer, as he was so slight and small, but I remember his debut for our Valencia team very well. It was a friendly against Castellon and the game intelligence and good understanding were there even then.
Maybe there was a bit of luck about the two nutmegs that brought him his goal against Ireland but play back the footage of the goal and look for the calmness and the composure as he finished. That is the important part. Everyone talks about the other Spanish midfield players of course – los bajitos (the small people) as we call them in Spain. The key aspect of their play is that they turn quicker than other players. Xavi has to face the game but the others can play "backwards" and turn. The prospect of facing Spain is an incentive for a very strong group of England players.
Voronin is clever... if his head is right
England might be facing one of my former players Andrei Voronin tonight and though it is very hard for a player to match the work ethic of a striker like Wayne Rooney, he does possess some of the technical skills that Rooney gives us. At Liverpool, we signed him on a free transfer from Bayer Leverkusen where he had shown, in the way he worked off Dimitar Berbatov, that he can be a very clever player when he puts his mind to it. Technically, he is very good. He makes very good movements, holds the ball well, passes and is not a bad finisher. He needs a target man to work with, which is why Andrei Shevchenko's knee injury will be a worry to Oleg Blokhin today.
Rafa's website, rafabenitez.com, provides tactical analysis and insight into Euro 2012 and wider football issues.
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