Two days before Valentine's Day 2003, Wayne Rooney made his debut for England (a 3-1 home defeat to Australia). The fact that 11 years and four months later there is still a raging Rooney debate is, frankly, extraordinary.
If you don't know him by now, you will never, never, never know him.
Against Italy he Iined up wide left in a 4-2-3-1, a role he filled occasionally at Manchester United a few years back. Ordinarily he plays behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1 or as a second striker in a 4-4-2. Sometimes he's a lone centre-forward in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. And sometimes both David Moyes and Sir Alex Ferguson played him in midfield.
You would think this versatility would be something to be treasured. After all, Rooney's had a pretty good career. He's third on United's all-time goal-scoring chart and, barring something unforeseen, should break Sir Bobby Charlton's record before his 31st birthday (he needs another 33; he's 28 and he notched 35 in the past two seasons). He should break into United's top 10 for appearances next year and, if he gets another 10 international goals -- not unreasonable, given his age -- he'll be the top scorer in the history of the England national team. He has also won a boatload of trophies for United, though I suppose folks are less impressed with that because United tend to win regularly.
Yet England -- the nation, not the team -- seems to have what his teammate Frank Lampard calls a "Rooney fixation." Today's headlines are all about how he'll play in the hole rather than out wide. Earlier it was about how he appeared to miss a warm-down session after training (in reality, he had gone to do extra work on his own). Prior to that, they had a serious-to-God disquisition over whether he ought to be dropped.
And note, when we say "dropped" we don't mean "dropped for Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Lionel Messi or even Ezequiel Lavezzi": dropped for Adam Lallana, who is 26 and won his first cap in November, or Ross Barkley, who is 20 and spent most of last year on loan in the lower leagues.
(Note that when the fixation isn't on Rooney, it's on his wife, Coleen. The big story this week had to do with the number of pieces of luggage she took to Brazil for herself and her two boys, aged 4 and 1.)
The cycle of build-destroy-build-destroy in the media, particularly in England, is a familiar one. Yet with Rooney it seems to reach extreme proportions that befuddle many in the rest of the world. The only reason you would consider dropping him is if you had reliable, top-drawer alternatives -- Barkley and Lallana certainly don't fall in that category yet, not to mention the fact that they're different players and therefore not real alternatives -- or if Rooney were unfit or horrible. He was neither in the opener against Italy. In fact, he delivered a picture-perfect cross for England's goal in a two against four situation. And he did it with his weaker foot.
The knock on him is that he doesn't work hard enough defensively and tends to get lost tactically. England did get burned down the left flank, though that may have something to do with left-back Leighton Baines' skill set, which is skewed towards attacking. (Strangely though, as part of the "new England," the Everton man seems immune from criticism.) As for Rooney's tactical discipline, it's always tough to tell from the outside, given that you're not privy to the individual instructions players are given. From what I can tell, he's no Dirk Kuyt defensively, but he's also generally busy, aggressive and strong, all pretty good attributes to have.
In some contexts, having a tactically disciplined, consistent "defensive forward" a la Kuyt or Park Ji-sung is essential. In others, less so. The way England played against Italy, with two deep-lying midfielders in front of the back four, it appears to be less of a priority. Rather than having forwards winded from chasing down opposing full-backs (and ending up with cramps, as happened to more than one England player), sometimes you're better off having them do less tracking, giving up the overlap and keeping them fresh for when you regain possession.
“The cycle of build-destroy in the media is a familiar one. Yet with Rooney it seems to reach extreme proportions that befuddle many in the rest of the world.”
Tactics are often essentially a series of trade-offs. Rooney represents one such trade-off; the question is whether what he does bring is worth it. He scored 17 league goals last year, which is one fewer than his linemates, Raheem Sterling and Danny Welbeck, combined. He had, by his standards, a bad season and scored five fewer goals than Daniel Sturridge, who had his best-ever season on a far better (and more prolific) team. How this is even a debate is hard to understand. Particularly since Roy Hodgson, the England coach, has shown no appetite or intention to actually drop him. All he did was try him in a different role and then switch him back to his original one, in the hole.
Sometimes you get the sense that public opinion somehow begrudges Rooney because, after his blistering debut, he merely became very good, rather than turning into the "White Pele." Or that, having thoroughly embraced Hodgson's "new England" -- so much so that the defeat against Italy in the opener was greeted with shrugged shoulders and cries of "but weren't we positive and attack-minded? Didn't we have a go? Wasn't that great?" -- and being genetically predisposed to necessarily crucify someone after a loss, they opted to pick on a relic of the "old England". (This time it was Rooney, maybe next time it will be Steven Gerrard or Glen Johnson.)
Rooney may not have fulfilled a nation's dreams (yet). He's not England's best player and he's almost certainly not even their best striker right now (though the guy who is -- Sturridge -- has had a tendency to be selfish and streaky over the years). But he remains a guy who can be a difference-maker on the pitch, something he has proved time and again. (And proved against Italy with that cross.) To think of ditching him now simply because he's not part of Hodgson's "New England" is silly. As is obsessing endlessly over his best position.