England vs. Italy: Wayne Rooney’s Chance to Transcend Stardom, Embrace Legend

Wayne Rooney’s match-winner against Ukraine seemed to temper a meaningful critical review of his return. Rusty with his first touch and flashing a footballing mind working quicker than his out-of-practice reflexes, the tournament debit showed he wasn’t far from being his usual self, even if he clearly was not ready to write his legend. The beneficiary of a goalkeeping mistake from Ukraine’s Andriy Pyatov, Rooney still managed a goal in his cobweb-shaking Euro 2012 debut, providing assurances that even on an off day he is a once and future king.

It’s a quality that should come in handy on Sunday, when Rooney will be the only difference between two sides seemingly intent on curing world insomnia. Of course, reprobate fans like myself will reflexively watch Sunday’s quarterfinal, thereby meeting most DSM-IV criteria for addiction and dependence. All indications are Sunday’s will be a dull match featuring two sides begging the other to advance with the ball. Only after Italy shows a willingness to do so (and shows no any idea of how to break down England) will it be apparent this match should have started with penalty kicks, with UEFA wisely and pre-emptively saving us the two-hour dross.

The approaches are too homologous to provide conflict. They’re more likely to produce a symbiotic passivity. England won’t risk opening up, and while Italy manager Cesare Prandelli might ideally like to, his talent instinctively regresses into stoic, reactionary football. Old dogs, new tricks, and Italy’s reformation hasn’t found new homes for all of Marcello Lippi’s left over hounds.

Both teams will use great goalkeepers and conservatively deployed midfielders to protect their central defenses – tandems short on agility and athleticism. The sides rely on the aging legs and outdated reputations of their midfield generals (Steven Gerrard, Andrea Pirlo) to provide some imagination while spraying the ball around. When either team establishes a presence in the final third, we’ll see an abundance of passes around the defense that serve to obscure a lack of know how.

All of that can be avoided with a good performance from Wayne Rooney, the one player who has the ability to sever this match from its predictable course. If Rooney plays like he did against Ukraine, England’s unlikely to distinguish themselves from Italy; however, if Rooney takes even the smallest of steps forward – if he knocks off some the rust from his touch and is able to match his reflexes to the speed of his ideas – Rooney gives England a major edge. Not only is he England’s most creative player – somebody who can provide useful ideas in the final third ideas – but his speed is likely to trouble center halves Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci. Coupled with Danny Welbeck and the occasional presence of Ashley Young, England has the personnel to take advantage of some of those hounds.

Of course, England had a similar advantage against Ukraine and failed to exploit it. A lack of ambition through midfield meant the edge was never fully exploited. Had Rooney been his normal self, he could have dropped further back from his forward position, helped England’s midfield connect with its forwards, and brought the team out of their shell. If some of those symptoms appear against Italy, England should enjoy more possession, more dangerous chances on goal, and a tilting of the scales.

But attack is only one phase where England need Rooney. In defense, Italy’s most important player will reside in the zone Rooney will be expected to defend, and while his group stage performance has largely been overstated following his great opening match against Spain, England must have a plan for midfielder Andrea Pirlo. Functioning as the Azzurri’s regista, the connection Pirlo has with forward Antonio Cassano acts as Italy’s nervous system. Break that, and Italy’s unlikely to accomplish anything but the most basic, autonomic tasks.

With Pirlo camped at the base of midfield, it should fall on Rooney to be the player who snaps the cord. Involved in three of Italy’s four Euro goals (one goal, two assists), Pirlo is Prandelli’s focal point. Faster than Pirlo with a comparable ability to read the game, Rooney can cut of Italy’s key point of distribution, forcing them into a Plan B they may not have.

All of which begs the question of Wayne Rooney’s fitness. Though he stayed on until the 86th minute against Ukraine, Rooney seemed to lose energy near the hour mark, something that may have been a one-match aberration. It’s hard to believe Roy Hodgson wouldn’t have had a planned substitution ready had Rooney lacked fitness. Perhaps the nervous energy of his return wore him down, with his second match of the tournament more likely to play out as expected. Regardless, if England are to break what seems like a tactically, stylistic, and ideological deadlock, they will probably need Rooney to do it.

It’s the type of opportunity that great players rarely have. How often do you see teams of such similar quality and approach meet with one player providing the only apparent difference? Even at international level, Messi and Ronaldo almost always play for the more talented side. For both club and country, Xavi and Iniesta orchestrate a style that no opponent can match. Even in England, Rooney’s Manchester United have developed such a distinct approach that Rooney is never the only difference between the sides.

England and Italy aren’t twins, but they’re close enough to make Rooney’s presence a literal game-changer. Line up the teams side by side, take the likely XIs player for player, and you see one side has a true difference-maker while the other does not. The closest Italy has is Mario Balotelli, but only 21 and still struggling with the expectations of extreme talent and character, Balotelli can’t be replied on. While Cassano plays a very similar style to Rooney, he’s no longer able to take over matches the way Rooney might.

Eight years ago, Rooney was that Balotelli-esque figure, making his major tournament debut in Portugal with four group stage goals – back-to-back doubles after England’s heart-breaking opening loss to France. By the end of 2004, Rooney had nine international goals in 20 appearances, a goal ratio comparable to those of Bobby Charlton, Alan Shearer, and Michael Owen. Since then, Rooney’s tacked on another 20 goals, though his rate has slowed considerably. Having scored only four times since 2009, Rooney sits with 29 goals in 75 appearances while critics ask whether he’ll ever be as good for England as he is for Manchester United.

Only 26 years old, there’s still time for Rooney to define his England legacy. Within the next four years, he can put his name alongside Charlton’s and Gary Lineker’s at the top of England’s goal scoring lists. Still, as it concerns his place in England’s lore, nights like Sunday’s can be career-defining moments.

It’s about living up to your billing. It’s about being the difference-maker everybody wants. It’s about giving a performance that demands comparisons to the Linekers and Shearers who help define the conversation around English football. It’s about showing you really are one of the best players in the world, a player worthy of building a national team around, and not just the best, more glorified English player in the Premier League.

Performances against nations like Italy matter. Tournaments like this, stakes like these: They’re rare opportunities for a player to transcend stardom and embrace legend. At the right time of his career and against the right opponent, Wayne Rooney’s time is now.

Richard Farley is a freelance writer and former host of the EPL Talk Podcast. His work is prominently featured in NBC Sports’ soccer coverage. You can follow him on Twitter at @richardfarley.

18 thoughts on “England vs. Italy: Wayne Rooney’s Chance to Transcend Stardom, Embrace Legend”

  1. I tried to read this article, but unfortunately I have misplaced my Roget’s Thesaurus. Perhaps if you wrote down to your audience we would better understand what you are trying to say.

    1. This piece is at least 50% too long and he tries to impress with hilariously obscure words that don’t really fit – “symbiotic passivity”? It’s a football match not synchronised swimming. What an idiot.

      1. neither symbiotic nor passivity are obsure words. those two sentences don’t work together in his piece though. it is a bit weird to call somebody an idiot when you’re complaining about his words being too much for you. i learned something: synchronized swimming writing is probably more complex than soccer writing.

    2. wow. so you know how to use the internet, but in addition to not knowing what these words mean, you don’t know how to access a thesaurus online. wild guess: thesaurus.com?

      1. Main Entry: Internet  [in-ter-net]

        Part of Speech: noun

        Definition: computer network

        Synonyms: ARPANET, W3, WWW, World Wide Web, cyberspace, hyperspace, infobahn, information highway, information superhighway, national information infrastructure, online network, the Net, the Web
        Notes: Internet should be capitalized, but intranet should be lowercase; Internet was coined from inter(national) + (Arpa)net and first popped up in 1974 as a descendant of Arpanet, a US government information network (the Advanced Research Projects Agency network) that was created in 1968 to keep up with Soviet advances in aerospace and nuclear science


  2. I think his main issue is his inability to play a role. He wants to be a box to box attacking midfielder, and that is not what England need him to be. Sure get back and help when under pressure, but he needs to stop falling back to collect the ball. Let Parker and Stevie G do that…. And allow the wings to feed him… I’d love to se him paired with Carroll… Let Carroll play the Michael Owen Gary Liniker role of goal poacher. And let Rooney draw the central defenders out… Works wonders for Germany last world cup.

  3. Rooney is lucky that Italy will be without their best defender Chielini so I can see England scoring a couple and keeping out the Italians. Unless Balotelli plays like he is capable of and not act stupidly, but what are the chances of that happening? I see a 2-1 England win with Rooney causing havoc to the Italian defense.

  4. i guess i’ll post something constructive: don’t know if rooney has to be the main man. italy’s narrow through the middle and missing their best defender. why not start carroll and try to get crosses in to him?

    1. I think that is a very nice effort, Craig, but to get crosses into him presumes England crosses midfield at some point. That’s my main concern.

  5. The Italians are not bad at defending high pieces like Sweden so playing Carroll won’t take advantage of any weakness. Players who have good movement and with pace can be more effective against the Italian defense.

  6. I’m sure the author didn’t expect he was writing for the same audience that reads The New Statesmen, or, The Economist, but I would imagine he had hoped for more appropriate response’s that are less reminiscent of message board’s for “The Mirror” or “The Sun”. just disappointing.

    Some of these responses to this article are unfortunate. If you don’t understand a word, try living on the edge and highlight the word, copy and paste it into google and find out what it is, or, perhaps if you own a Mac, tap, and select definition, it’s not that hard, and if it is for only a moment you may feel better about yourself because you learned something.

    His article makes some relevant points including,

    “The approaches are too homologous to provide conflict. They’re more likely to produce a symbiotic passivity.”

    There is nothing wrong with saying “symbiotic passivity”.

    While I don’t always agree with the points made by the authors posts, attacking his use of the english language as being to much for you to understand is just sad, I would rather see this english used in article’s on here than not.

    You could just read ESPN if you want to be talked down to, or just go to any UK tabloid website?

    Here is a book I just read, it may help you appreciate the language more.


    or here is a link you can use as a resource to learn more.


  7. @Fog. Guy, if you need a thesaurus to get through that basic piece, the problem is with you, not the author. What are you, five years of age?

    As for the article, give me a break. Rooney to rise to legendary status? The guy just scored a sitter that Stevie Wonder could have probably put in if someone had yelled ‘duck’, and it was the first goal Rooney has actually scored in a major tournament for EIGHT YEARS!!!! Think about that, and how many tournaments and games that encompasses. It’s a travesty that a waste of space like this player is being spoken of in the same breath as the likes of Bobby Charlton, who didn’t spend his time building up his career total for England against nobodies and in qualifying only to put in a disappearing act when it really counted. Rooney is the most over-rated, over-hyped piece of garbage to pull on a shirt for England in decades, and it’s a sad indictment on English football, and the desperation of the fan base and media to see a home grown hero raise English football above its typical mediocrity of recent decades, that see this talentless twit as anything but what he really is.

    And in case you’re wondering, I’m actually a United supporter as well! I can’t wait till the day we see the back of the guy.

    1. Three things here.

      First, I’m assuming your comment wasn’t aimed at me, since I had nothing to say about it. 😉

      Second, Fog has a tendency to be facetious, so people often get themselves too exercised about his posts. Relax. If he hooks you, you’ll just make his day. (Chum on the water, eh, Fog?) (no disrespect to Deep Purple).

      Third, I agree with you wholeheartedly about Rooney. The proof is in the pudding, not the hype. “Stevie Wonder” was truly inspired.

  8. I didn’t need a thesaurus, but I certainly thought a few word choices were awkward. For example:

    “The approaches are too homologous to provide conflict. They’re more likely to produce a symbiotic passivity.”

    Homologous and symbiotic are both ordinarily biological terms, at least to orthodox connotations among readers, which are separate to the more archaic usages of ‘similar’ (in homologous) or mutual as intended with ‘symbiotic’. These usages specifically were unnecessary, obfuscating, flawed adjectives, and contextually inappropriate. Additionally, the sentences are formulated in a contrived manner, concluding too soon and immediately followed with another brief sentence, almost like someone’s screaming a sentence with only one breath.

    However, I did enjoy this piece overall and believe others’ complaints are due to their limited vocabulary or having perceived a pretentious attitude. Who cares, though, when there’s apparently an audience enjoying this prose.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *