With Rooney gone, time for England to focus on collective group, not one star
Here are two quick questions.
First, who was Spain's key player for their World Cup success in 2010?
Second, who was Germany's key player for their World Cup success in 2014?
There is, of course, no right answer to either question.
For Spain you could name Xavi Hernandez for orchestrating the midfield play, Andres Iniesta for his mesmeric attacking midfield play or David Villa for his goal return.
Similarly, for Germany you could pinpoint Manuel Neuer's sweeper-keeping, Philipp Lahm's versatility, Bastian Schweinsteiger or Toni Kroos' midfield performances or Thomas Muller's forward play.
You get the point. The past two World Cup winners, and the two dominant European sides over the past decade, have not based their side around one player. They've been cohesive, harmonious and egalitarian football teams which depend upon the system rather than individuals.
England have spent much of that period trying to learn lessons in terms of tactics, but this -- the rejection of individual-based sides -- is the key point they need to focus upon. For the past 25 years, English football has been utterly obsessed with the concept of the superstar individual, the one-man band, the Messiah, the Roy of the Rovers figure to drive England forward solo.
There have essentially been four separate figures playing that role. First it was Paul Gascoigne, amongst the outstanding performers at World Cup 1990 with his driving midfield runs. Gazza's tournament quite literally ended in tears, but he continued to be England's main man. Aside from a superb goal against Scotland at Euro 96, however, he never quite lived up to the billing thereafter.
His controversial omission from the World Cup 1998 squad meant the baton essentially passed to Michael Owen, who didn't start the tournament in the side and yet was still the main focus of media attention, with everyone desperate for him to force his way into the team. Owen scored an outstanding solo goal against Argentina and became a truly outstanding forward, eventually winning the Ballon d'Or in 2001. But again, Owen's first tournament was his best, and he often endured difficult games in the World Cup and European Championships.
At some point, probably when he struck the famous free kick to confirm England's qualification for the 2002 World Cup, David Beckham became the main man. Beckham lacked the raw talent of these other players but was a true superstar, the world's most famous -- rather than best -- footballer. Again, however, there was disappointment. He was half-fit at World Cup 2002, and never truly produced his best England performances at tournaments.
Then came Wayne Rooney. There's a familiar tale here: precocious talent, instant impact, slight disappointment thereafter. Rooney is England's record goal scorer, yet his performances at major tournaments were often underwhelming, particularly in a tactical sense. England couldn't quite fit him into a particular role and base the team around him.
But the issue, of course, is that they shouldn't have been doing that anyway. And now that Rooney has faded from the international picture, there is no one outstanding player. This is unquestionably a good thing.
What England do have, however, is a collection of very talented, generally young and selfless footballers developing. England's key player is now tough to identify. Is it Harry Kane, who has managed 20 league goals in three consecutive Premier League campaigns including back-to-back Golden Boot awards? Is it Adam Lallana, the clever playmaker who quickens the tempo, is intelligent with his movement and forms passing triangles with onrushing midfielders? Is it attacking midfielder Dele Alli, who storms forward into the box to provide an extra goal-scoring threat?
On top of that, there are also the likes of Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Eric Dier, all relatively established Premier League players and yet still 23 or under. They're on the fringes of the squad for now, but with a fine 2017-18 there's no reason they can't establish themselves as first-team players.
The key, though, is that English football doesn't get carried away with one particular player. Over the next few months, there will be a concerted effort to promote one player in particular, probably either Kane or Alli depending upon their individual form in the first half of next season, ahead of the World Cup. For marketing reasons, individuals are more powerful than teams, and football has never been more obsessed with selling itself, and bowing to the demands of sponsors.
On that level, there's a need for one particular star individual, but this shouldn't be transferred onto Gareth Southgate's tactical plans for next summer's tournament. Part of English football's inability to create a particular philosophy, a particular brand of football, has been because of the complete obsession with individuals -- England's style of play wasn't defined by a footballing approach but instead by the demands of Rooney or Beckham.
It remains to be seen whether Southgate is the man to pursue with the right approach. While Sam Allardyce's premature demise as England manager was somewhat sad, it was astonishing to hear him say, following his first game in charge, that "It wasn't for him to tell Wayne Rooney to play,, a message which seemed to hand further free reign for Rooney to play where he wanted, at the risk of overall cohesion. Southgate has seemingly ended Rooney's international career calmly, quietly and with a minimum of fuss.
England probably don't quite have the requisite quality of players to win next year's World Cup -- a "lost generation" means there are no standout attacking players at traditional peak ages. That is surely better, however, than having one player being the sole focus, and the emerging generation being constrained by his presence. For the first time in a while, England's future looks relatively bright.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.