For 13 years, he has been highly – and deservedly - regarded as the heart and soul of English football. Apart from a blip at Gelsenkirchen in 2006, Wayne Rooney has always expressed himself as a leader and a key figure on the field – a player who could influence England’s fortunes in the number 9 role he once owned without tangible competition for both club and country.
After all, his record in an England shirt speaks for itself – top of the charts both in outfield appearances and in goals scored. The respect he commands in the dressing room is evident from his teammates’ surprised reactions to boos from English fans towards their captain following the 2-0 victory over Malta on Saturday. They still look upto him as a role-model and a focal point for England’s prospects to succeed at Russia 2018, after which the 30-year old will hang up his international boots.
However, England interim boss Gareth Southgate is a man who has been engraved in the FA’s youth system for a while. He may praise Rooney’s commitment as a team-player and use his ‘squad-rotation’ policy as an excuse to drop Rooney, but judging from Southgate’s fondness for youth and Rooney’s inferior performance in midfield against Malta, one may be inclined to believe the 46-year old may already have laid a marker on Rooney’s immediate destiny as an England player.
With Jose Mourinho temporarily keeping him aside from first-team plans at Old Trafford and the likes of dynamic young talent like Dele Alli rising rapidly through the national selection ladder, is it really the beginning of the end for Rooney?
The stats say it all
When in doubt, turn to the statistics for proof. After initial success in his new number 10 role in the latter half of last season, Rooney has struggled to live up to expectation since the commencement of the 2016/17 campaign. When one compares his performances with fellow attacking midfielders, one can clearly witness Rooney’s shortcomings.
2016/17 Premier League: Comparing Rooney with his counterparts in attacking midfield
|Player||Minutes played||Pass percentage||Key passes (Per 90 minutes)|
|Kevin de Bruyne||514||83.4||3.3|
The table above clearly explains that despite a healthy pass percentage, the England and Manchester United skipper has managed to eke out just 1.7 key passes every 90 minutes of Premier League football. Rooney’s apparent contentment at sideways passing has proven to be a major detriment to United’s chances of finding the back of the net more often than they should.
A shocking display in the 3-1 defeat to Watford a few weeks back – where unchallenged crosses were finding the crowd – was enough to convince Mourinho that a switch was needed. What followed was a 4-1 thumping of champions Leicester City at Old Trafford, where man of the match Paul Pogba and Juan Mata were appointed with their preferred advanced midfield roles.
On Saturday, Rooney was found guilty of exactly the same drawbacks – sideways passing with little or no quality through the heart of the Maltese defence, who were only too happy to deal with crosses coming in from the wide men.
Rooney against Malta
To create just a single goal-scoring chance against lowly opposition – from a set-piece in the second half – even after 133 completed passes reflects Rooney’s alarming dip in form and confidence. His once dynamic and vibrant attributes are far behind him, resulting in statistics which synchronise with someone who is deployed in central midfield.
For England, that is a position in which young Eric Dier has been rising to prominence ever since his debut against Spain last November. It is, therefore, no surprise that Gareth Southgate has had to take an admittedly difficult, but a team-based decision in resigning his skipper to the sidelines for the game at Ljubljana and make a straight swap with Dier.
What next for Rooney?
Out of first-team action for both club and country at the moment, Rooney now has time to examine his current position. With both form and age not on his side, one fears that Rooney may have already earned his last start for a country he has undoubtedly represented with the highest degree of professionalism for nearly one-and-a-half decades.
If a pedestrian display in the infamous defeat to Iceland at the Euros was just one out of a number of underperformances that night, then an exceptionally unconvincing show on Saturday may well be a decisive hammer-blow on his hopes of seeing out what will be the final two years of his England career.
His recent habit of venting out his frustration at match officials every time a decision goes against him is classic corroboration that he is a player who – passionate though he might be – is going through the worst phase of his career.
Having been handed the daunting task of resurrecting English football still hurting from the Iceland debacle and the Sam Allardyce saga, Gareth Southgate realises that he simply cannot afford to shoehorn an out-of-sorts Rooney into the first team.
To compound Rooney’s misery, Southgate has even identified a potential successor in Jordan Henderson as captain of the national side. The athleticism and drive displayed by Henderson in midfield this season suits Southgate’s philosophy perfectly, convincing the ex-Boro boss that the Liverpool skipper is the right man to lead this England squad.
An obvious decline in pace means that Rooney can no longer fulfil the role of a lonely number nine – where the instinct of a striker to pounce upon any opportunity is vital - while his recent outings as a number ten have been far from satisfactory. A short break from football and an extended period at the training ground to improve his fitness levels wouldn’t do him half bad.
Simultaneously, he will need all the backing from his club and national managers that he still has a pivotal part to play in their immediate and long-term plans, without which – barring a long injury and suspension list - it looks painstakingly likely that Wayne Rooney may currently be in the twilight of what has been a glittering career – full of goals, trophies and memories for every Manchester United and England fan to cherish.
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