Chantilly (France) (AFP) – Wayne Rooney arrived in France for Euro 2016 with his place in England’s team reportedly under threat, but a new midfield role has given him a fresh lease of life.
With Rooney under pressure from rivals such as Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane and Leicester City sensation Jamie Vardy, England manager Roy Hodgson faced pre-tournament calls to drop the country’s record goal-scorer.
Instead he withdrew him into midfield and Rooney has prospered, attracting plaudits for his displays in the 1-1 draw with Russia and 2-1 win over Wales that have taken England to the brink of the last 16.
“We are happy with the composure he brings to the team, with the calmness at times when it gets a bit frantic chasing an equaliser or a winner,” Hodgson said after England beat Wales in Lens.
“His long cross-field passes have always been a feature of his game. He’s had that ability.
“And in particular, having survived some doubts about him in the build-up to this tournament and my selection of the 23, I’m so pleased for him that he’s shown everyone he’s still a big player capable of having a big influence on the team.”
While he is purring now, Hodgson has needed convincing about the wisdom of playing Rooney in midfield, despite the fact he ended the season playing there for Manchester United.
In England’s final pre-tournament friendly, an unconvincing 1-0 win over Portugal on June 2, Rooney led the line as a central striker in a 4-3-3 formation.
– Giggs, Scholes examples –
Two weeks later, he is being picked in midfield ahead of specialists such as Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson and James Milner.
Rooney’s repositioning has exposed a hitherto underappreciated side of his game, with his strafing passes helping to set England’s tempo against both Russia and Wales.
He completed 66 passes against Wales, more than any other player, and his tireless promptings established a foundation for the late push that culminated in Daniel Sturridge’s injury-time winner.
“Against Wales, Rooney was outstanding again with the way he grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and was driving everyone forward,” former England striker Alan Shearer wrote on the BBC website.
“He and Kyle Walker at right-back have been our best players in France so far.”
Rooney’s realignment is the latest development in a debate about his best position that has rumbled on ever since his stunning emergence at the age of 16.
Not quite a classic number nine, but not a real number 10 either, Rooney has twice scored over 30 goals in a season for United — in 2009-10 and 2011-12 — but has admitted that he is “not an out-and-out goal-scorer”.
Last season saw him surpass Bobby Charlton as England’s record scorer, as he took his tally to 52 international goals. But it was also the first time in 12 campaigns at United that he failed to breach the 10-goal barrier in the Premier League.
Rooney, 30, has long said that his future was likely to lie in midfield and following a spell on the sidelines through injury, it was as a midfielder that he was reintegrated into United’s team by then-manager Louis van Gaal in April.
Flushed with the success of his conversion, he made the surprising admission on the eve of the Wales game that he is happier with his football now than when he exploded onto the global scene at Euro 2004.
“It’s a different role I’m playing now and it’s something I’m enjoying,” Rooney said. “I’m enjoying it more now than I was in 2004.”
Two of Rooney’s former United team-mates, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, added years to their careers by dropping back into deep-lying midfield roles.
Whether Rooney’s repositioning achieves the same results may ultimately be down to new United manager Jose Mourinho, but for now, the sun appears to be rising on a new phase in his career.
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