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Thursday, 24 June 2010

England's IncongRoonety

While Fabio Capello’s much-vaunted changes to his starting line up had the desired effect, they still made for a fitful, frustrating evening for Wayne Rooney, who has so far struggled to profit from the formation that bore so much fruit in qualifying. England have coped without him in squeezing out of a fairly weak World Cup group, but they will need him to fire as they go deeper into the tournament. So far though, England have not embraced Rooney’s strengths, while the man himself seems short on dynamism.

Playing alongside Emile Heskey, Rooney attempts to profit from his link play with runners from midfield. It gives him opportunities to play on the last defender, but England – particularly in their first two matches – become obsessed with Heskey as a lynchpin. This requires Rooney to drop deeper to get the ball as the Villa man continually, while holding it up well enough, plays sideways or backwards. While it worked in the qualifiers, Heskey was some way off the Villa first team for most of the season and is not the player he used to be. Meanwhile, as a dynamic counter-attacker, the directness Rooney can provide needs to be presaged by direct service to him, not through a proxy.

With Jermaine Defoe starting alongside Rooney last night, he was forced to relinquish even a theoretical position on the shoulders of the defenders as Defoe naturally occupies this space. Rooney should thrive here, with a pacy forward to complement him, but the problem with Defoe is you don’t link with him, you play him in on goal. Rooney plays a much more traditional number 10 role alongside the Spurs striker and while he had one chance last night, brilliantly saved, his scoring opportunities have been few and far between. The pressure is on him to find goals, meanwhile, is immense.

It’s not as if Rooney can’t manufacture his own chances, but he hasn’t looked like scoring in three games. Which begs the question: Is all right with England’s talisman? It is hard to spearhead a team playing so poorly, but even before Capello withdrew him last night, he looked short on fitness, form and confidence. These aren’t the traits we expected him to be sharing with Fernando Torres before the tournament began.

Gone is the 17-year old who stunned Europe in 2004. Rooney no longer exudes that carefree and exuberant fearlessness in matches and while his efforts remain at 110%, he has not looked happy at this tournament. Talked up before every game by team mates and opposition alike, the burden of his nation’s expectations appear to be sitting slightly heavier on Rooney’s shoulders than they have in previous years and combined with a lengthy season of responsibility and a recent injury, he does not look the striker of six months ago. He looks a man preoccupied with his own form and his own ankle.

The knockout stages may yet invigorate him, should he convince himself he is fully fit. Where spontaneity and submission blows are required, there are few better to have in your side. I fully expect the belief to come flooding back when needed most and from here Rooney can only make grander impressions with each passing game. However, England’s formation doesn’t seem to favour him and it remains to be seen if Capello has any plans to help liberate his best player. Rob MacDonald

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