Wayne Rooney is regularly the subject of debate approaching a major international tournament with England, whether it’s concerning his disciplinary issues, fitness problems or his form.
At this year’s European Championship, the conversation is whether the England captain deserves his place in the team at all.
That may come as a surprise, given that the Manchester United striker is England’s record scorer with 52 goals in 111 games and still the team’s most recognizable player – 12 of those goals have come in just 16 games since the 2014 World Cup. Not to mention his experience of playing 14 years at the highest level for club and country which could be vital for one of the youngest squads in France.
All that pedigree may count for nothing if he has a disappointing game against Russia in England’s opening Group B game on Saturday.
The critics would no doubt come out in force if that happens, regurgitating an argument that’s been heard increasingly over the past few months – that the 30-year-old’s best days are behind him and that he’s been overtaken by the up-and-coming generation including attacking players Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford.
Russia’s coach, Leonid Slutsky, even said this week that Rooney is “not the player he was.”
Rooney isn’t taking much notice.
“I know the qualities I have and I don’t have to sit here and defend myself,” Rooney said Friday at a pre-match news conference at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille. “I’ve played this game for a lot of years and I’m aware that my game has changed slightly over the years.
“In my opinion, it’s changed for the better. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but the opinions that matter to me are those of my coaches and teammates.”
England coach Roy Hodgson has been forced to defend his captain many times this season despite Rooney’s recent goal-prowess, and will surely pick him against Russia. Which position he opts to play Rooney is a source of contention, however.
A regular fixture up front for England and United for more than a decade, Rooney finished the recent Premier League season as a deep-lying midfielder. The days when a fearless Rooney slashed his way through defenses as a striker, notably at Euro 2004 in Portugal, appear over but he is plenty good enough to reinvent himself as a more thoughtful, intelligent playmaker. He showed that during United’s FA Cup final win against Crystal Palace last month.
Rooney could play behind the forward line against Russia, or alongside Eric Dier as a deeper midfielder – picking out attacking players with his probing passes.
“I’ve changed my game slightly,” Rooney said. “I’ve seen players and played with players who have changed what they did and become better players. That’s natural. I’ve played in midfield for the last few months at United, and it’s a natural way of football. It happens.
“I feel with my football intelligence, I can play there and further my career there as well.”
Passing his knowledge and experience down to younger England players could be Rooney’s biggest role over the next month.
“You can obviously play without fear. Naturally, younger lads do that. I did it when I broke into the team in 2003,” he said. “It’s more of a case of the manager, coaching staff and myself telling the players how good they are. We have a really talented group of players, and we need them to believe that themselves, that they’re good enough to go out there and do it.”
Hodgson must decide whether to pair Kane and Jamie Vardy up front against Russia in a 4-4-2 diamond formation, or just play with one striker – most likely Kane – in a 4-2-3-1, which would likely see Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana play out wide.
England’s defense has been a cause of concern but center back Chris Smalling and left back Ryan Bertrand have overcome knocks, giving Hodgson the luxury of having a fully fit squad to pick from.
England, chasing a first international trophy since winning the World Cup in 1966, hasn’t won its opening game at a European Championship in eight attempts and is coming off a dreadful World Cup performance in Brazil when it exited at the group stage.
“You can’t wipe the slate clean,” Hodgson said. “We’ll live with the fact it’s been 50 years since we won a tournament, and 20 since we reached a semifinal.”
“We want to kick-start our tournament,” he added. “Preparations have been perfect … We’re ready and excited.”