Already, just a few weeks after Wayne Rooney was made captain of his club and country, the dissenting rumblings are growing louder. After an anaemic, sluggish performance against Norway, England’s new order, with the captain Rooney, ironically, the only remaining member of the old order, has started with a sigh. Even more troubling than Roy Hodgson’s tactical regression, back to a largely traditional 4-4-2, was the fact that when Wayne Rooney came off for his ex-team mate Danny Welbeck, England instantly looked more fluid and dynamic going forward. It seems unlikely that Hodgson will drop his newly anointed leader, even in the face of such compelling empirical evidence. England fans have accordingly prepared themselves for another qualifying campaign defined by the stodgy, the incoherent, and the sense of frustration they all know painfully well.
This was England’s attacking unit that started the match; Raheem Sterling (who was the standout player on the night) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the wings, Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney up front. Chamberlain had little joy on his flank, but Sterling was a bundle of dribbling and movement, darting in and out and looking exactly like the Premier League’s most incisive attacker. One of Sturridge’s best attributes as a striker is his constant, intelligent movement; at Liverpool, whenever one of his midfielders has the ball, Sturridge immediately finds an angle to pursue, a clear line that he traces in behind the defence. Coutinho, Henderson and Gerrard usually reward this willing productivity with a pass on the button, but even when they don’t, Sturridge isn’t discouraged, tracking back into an onside position and quickly finding another angle. His running stretches the defence, implicitly creating the space that Sterling thrives in. Rooney, to put it nicely, is not as active an attacker.
Their respective heat maps show just how much more involved Sturridge was against Norway. This is in spite of Rooney being the more reserved of the two positionally, with the ball being funnelled through him before it gets to Sturridge, in theory at least. In reality, Rooney was a lethargic pivot in the attack, often slowing down the play and causing the build up to stagnate. His penalty conversion was one of the few good moments for the captain. As soon as the energetic Welbeck came on, and Sterling was moved to a more central position, the attack looked lively and slick, with only a quarter of the match remaining. If Hodgson is going to use a formation that utilises a No. 10, then Sterling is the best choice for it. Adam Lallana would also offer as much passing quality, and considerably more animation than Rooney currently does. But Rooney is the captain, what kind of choice would it be to leave him on the bench? It’s a worrying situation, with Hodgson facing the prospect of being forced to undercut his own decision.
It doesn’t get better for Rooney. At Manchester United, Louis van Gaal made him club captain, to muted response, then went out and bought Radamel Falcao. The Colombian, along with Rooney and Robin van Persie, make up a formidable front line, but in order to accommodate all of these players in a balanced formation, a sacrifice must be made somewhere. At this stage, it looks more likely that Juan Mata will be warming the bench than it does Rooney, but many United fans, and neutrals, would argue that, despite his captaincy and contract, it should be Rooney who makes way.
It looks to be between Mata and Rooney to compete for that spot in the hole behind the strikers. And it may only be Rooney’s privileged position as captain that secures the position for him. Juan Mata is a more accomplished passer than Rooney, he possesses a more finely tuned ability to thread short passes through to the striker. In his last undisrupted season at Chelsea, Mata scored 20 goals in all competitions, showing that his goal-scoring instincts are at least comparable to the Englishman’s. Both players are refined dead-ball specialists. Rooney is certainly the more physical of the two, and offers a lot more defensively than Mata. But the addition of Falcao and the quality of van Persie mean that it’s Mata, the pure No. 10, not Rooney, who’s more of a striker-cum-playmaker, that fits more appropriately into the vacant spot in the line up. Even if Mata was a Moyes panic signing, he had been one of the best players in the league only two seasons ago. The discontent surrounding the continued preference of Wayne Rooney grows.
This isn’t to say Rooney is a completely spent force, living high on some imagined quality, a sort of fraud undeserving of the privileging he receives. He is still an effective player for club and country, as his consistent goal scoring record suggests. But with alternative options available and playing well, the twin fates of Manchester United and England both seem to hinge on how much weight Rooney’s captaincy carries when deciding the starting line up. Wenger dropped his club captain, Thomas Vermaelen, for most of last season, a decision justified by the excellent form of the alternatives that came in. Will van Gaal and Hodgson have the courage to do the same, if they need to?