Even if Wayne Rooney was available, England would have been happy with four points from their first two group games. And given their inexplicable reverence for a France (as if France weren’t a team that flamed out of the last World Cup), the Three Lions probably would not have approached Les Bleus any differently. Hodgson was going to bunker. Now, even on points on top of Group D as they go into their final group match, England’s living out a near best case scenario. Suffice to say few saw this as England’s Rooney-free existence.
Now comes the hard part: Deciding where Rooney plays and who gets sacrificed. That’s assuming you think he should play straight away. Not everyone does. Speaking to the BBC, Roy Hodgson hinted he’ll go right in, with the manager hoping the team will experience a boost now that Rooney’s served his suspension.
There is, however, a certain logic behind bringing Rooney along slowly, logic that Roberto Martínez attempted to articulate on ITV Sunday night. It wasn’t good logic, but it went like this: England has a good thing going; Hodgson shouldn’t mess with it; it’s good that the team keep a sense of competition for spots. I’m not sure what kind of morale issues a coach would incur by keeping a team’s best player on the bench for the sake of competition, but perhaps we’re getting a glimpse into why Martínez was passed over for the Liverpool job.
Capable of playing both a ten and a nine (if a false one), Rooney can assume either forward spot in Hodgson’s 4-4-2. Though he profiles as a second striker, Rooney has played on his own with Manchester United. He also played in the center of Fabio Capello’s 4-3-3. Playing him as a nine also has the enticing virtue of allowing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain into the team on the left without having to sacrifice Ashley Young, who could play behind Rooney. Though playing Rooney as a ten would seem a given, there are some compelling reasons to have him lead the attack.
There are, however, more compelling reasons to play Rooney in his natural position, not the least of which is his creativity. Over England’s first two games, the only hint of open play creativity came from Theo Walcott. Steven Gerrard is supposed to provide that spark, but it’s been years since a team built around Liverpool’s captain could be described as creative. While Gerrard remains highly skilled, he’s no longer somebody that can consistently spur an attack. Rooney, however, when deployed as a ten, can provide that vital link to attack, augmenting the lack of incisiveness in from England’s midfield. As a nine, the team’s most creative player would see some of this skills wasted.
Where England’s most likely to benefit from Rooney as a ten is on the counter. As Manchester City found out in this year’s FA Cup, Rooney possesses an almost unmatched ability to drop to the edge of his third, get his team into transition, then get into the penalty area to complete the movement. It’s a skillset that could prove vital as the tournament continues, with England more likely to adopt their France tactics in the knockout rounds. Play Rooney as a nine, and England looses that weapon.
If you buy the idea Rooney should both start and play in support of a lead striker, one of Carroll or Welbeck must be sacrificed. Do you go with the target man, Andy Carroll? Or, do you go with the more complete forward, Danny Welbeck? Each player scored against Sweden, though the vastly different nature of their goals shows how vastly different the two players are. Carroll will be the man England can target as both in transition and the final third. Welbeck’s most effective when the ball’s played to his feet and he’s given opportunities to use his pace to beat opponents.
Hodgson has said he likes using a player who can serve as a focal point for the attack, though the fact that Welbeck has started both games hints he’s not going to let that preference stand in the way of selecting the better player. Carroll would serve as a better focal point, but as Welbeck showed on Friday, he offers more ways to beat you.
It’s also hard to ignore club affiliation. Welbeck and Rooney both play for Manchester United, as does Ashley Young. For a team that has lacked cohesion going forward, England should use any advantage at its disposal. Leveraging the familiarity United’s attackers have with each other can’t hurt.
Again, this comes back to the counter attacker, where Welbeck can be one of the tournaments most dangerous players. As we saw against Sweden, the ability to read teammates’ movements can be the difference between a successful counter and a bunch of guys overrunning the ball. Twice in the Friday’s closing moments, Chamberlain, Walcott, and Gerrard weren’t in sync when breaking toward Sweden’s defense. Uncertain runs, misplayed passes – they undid attacks where England briefly had numerical advantages. While those kind of breakdowns can still happen amongst teammates, they’re less likely to.
And it can not be overstated how important it is for England to promote a good counter attack, something that goes beyond their attackers’ speed or their inability to consistently threaten other ways. Provided they get past Ukraine, their likely quarterfinal opponent is Spain. The only two teams to beat Spain in competitive matches since 2006 (United States, Switzerland) did so by playing counter attacking football. With Spain likely to show more dominance of the ball than even France did, it’s difficult to imagine another any other way England can go about generating chances.
And in that regard, it’s hard to overestimate how much Rooney improves England’s chances. Again going back to those botched transition opportunities against Sweden, England had nobody at the center of the attacks. They had nobody orchestrating the movements, nobody off which players made their runs. It was chaos – a jail break – yet the breaks nearly ended up being England’s best chances of the game. Were it not for an incredible back heel from Welbeck, the only highlights for England’s attack would be a long cross for Carroll and a fluking corner conversion.
With Rooney back, England has a consistent threat they can build around. And if there’s one thing Roy Hodgson likes, it’s consistency.
- Rooney has raised expectations ahead of his return, saying England are contenders to win the tournament. Technically, he’s right. Practically, England need to worry about Ukraine. This team’s recent history has been littered with disappointment. There’s not sense in getting ahead of yourself.
- Last week, the Guardian’s Richard Williams wrote about the emergence of a new generation of English footballers, as exemplified by eight players on the squad aged 18 to 23. Coincidentally, the previous and somewhat overlooked group of prospects is also gaining its foothold at the same time. There are seven players between 25 and 27 in this team. Another way to look at it: That’s over half the squad you can expect to be around come France 2016.
- Although Theo Walcott left Sunday’s training session with a hamstring problem, he’s been tipped to start the Ukraine match. It makes sense to move Walcott into a starting role.