The Manchester United forward was deployed in a exceedingly deep role in the World Cup qualifier against Slovakia, and his manager must find a quick solution to his troubles
How do you solve a problem like Wayne Rooney?
England’s most experienced campaigner, the player with all the status, all the medals, all the goals, Rooney has for so long been an automatic starter for both club and country. The Manchester United captain inherited the armband at international level under Roy Hodgson, and Sam Allardyce has allowed him to keep it, as he wants both an on-pitch leader and an off-pitch example.
Yet Rooney is fast becoming a millstone around England’s neck. There are few players in the Premier League with such a diverse range of achievements. He has proved himself at the highest level time and again, both in the domestic game and on the European stage. Yet internationally Rooney has thrived just once; in that balmy 2004 summer, as he burst onto the stage as a barrel-chested teenager, bullying defenders and scoring brilliant goals.
Now 30, Rooney’s abilities have waned. His passing radar is broken, he regularly hits row Z with his shots and his pace over 10 yards has all but vanished. And yet he continues to play for both England and United.
Allardyce said in the build-up to Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Slovakia – which ended in a dramatic 1-0 win, thanks to Adam Lallana’s late intervention – that Rooney was likely to continue to play in his club position, in the hole behind the striker.
“Wayne is playing behind the front man at Manchester United. Dele Alli has started well too, so that makes it a difficult choice,” he told reporters.
Yet that didn’t happen at Stadion Antona Malatinskeho. Instead Rooney was played in midfield, alongside Tottenham’s Eric Dier – the archetypal anchor man.
At one stage Rooney dropped even deeper than Dier, collecting the ball from his defence, and looked to ping a ball to the right wing. He caught it wrong, however, and the ball floated out of play, 20 yards from Rooney’s intended target.
Of course, to pillory one player for one error in a game would be harsh, but it is a worrying symptom of a quite horrendous decline.
His 80th minute dive in the area, with the scores at 0-0, was embarrassing; Rooney is meant to be setting an example with that armband on, yet he added play-acting to his blotted copybook with the clock ticking down.
On the night that he became England’s record outfield appearance holder, with 116 caps, Rooney issued a timely reminder of his complete unsuitability to this England team.
He is too slow, too keen to play the Hollywood pass, too sloppy. Rooney is rightly revered for his club but he has never earned his stripes at international level and Allardyce would be right to cut his ties with a player on the decline before it is too late.
The energy of Dele Alli was in stark contrast to Rooney after his introduction, and the two are meant to play in similar positions. Alli, fresh off the bench, won free-kicks, looked to play the ball forward, and tricked his way past a number of defenders. The two are different players, of course, but Rooney looked all the more ponderous as the 20-year-old jinked this way and that.
Allardyce will surely have noticed this, yet he allowed Rooney to complete the 90 minutes, while contributing very little, and there must soon, surely, come a tipping point.
Rooney is as much a defensive midfielder as Harry Kane is a goalkeeper, but there he stayed for the entirety of the fixture, huffing and puffing, playing square ball after square ball.
Allardyce must quickly make a decision. While he is blessed with a talented pool of strikers, including Kane, Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy, the former Sunderland manager will be aware that Rooney will have chances in a striking role, and will surely score goals, especially against opposition such as Malta and Lithuania.
But he must not be allowed to continue in his current role. Allardyce faces a number of challenges as England manager, not least restoring a fear factor to a team that has become ignominious in the eyes of both supporters and rival sides, but Rooney’s role is a pertinent question.
Allardyce, who may be off to a winning start, must find an answer quickly, and he must act decisively, for the good of this England team.