Commentary

Skipper Wayne Rooney must step up for England at big tournaments

Wayne Rooney celebrates his penalty against San Marino on Saturday that enabled him to draw level with Bobby Charlton's tally.
Wayne Rooney celebrates his penalty against San Marino on Saturday that enabled him to draw level with Bobby Charlton's tally. PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

Has Wayne Rooney hit the heights we expected him to achieve when he scored that winning goal against Arsenal five days before his 17th birthday? No, he hasn't.

That might seem harsh, given he's just equalled the England scoring record, but not enough of his goals have mattered when the Three Lions have needed him most. Only six have come in major tournaments and four of those were at Euro 2004.

Rooney is a very good player but if you are going to call him great, then I'm not sure what adjective you use for Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.

He was outstanding at the European Championship in Portugal 11 years ago, but it remains his most significant contribution for England at a major finals.

At the 2006 World Cup, he was injured and then sent off against Portugal in the quarter-finals.

  • ENGLAND'S ALL-TIME TOP SCORERS

  • Wayne Rooney

    Goals 49, Caps 106, Games per goal 2.16

  • Bobby Charlton

    Goals 49, Caps 106, Games per goal 2.16

  • Gary Lineker

    Goals 48, Caps 80, Games per goal 1.67

  • A BREAKDOWN OF ROONEY'S 49 GOALS

  • When he netted

    1 in World Cups

    5 in European championships

    13 in Euro qualifiers

    16 in World Cup qualifiers

    14 in friendlies

  • How he finished

    33 with his right foot

    11 headers

    5 with his left foot

  • Where he scored from

    36 inside the box in open play

    5 from the penalty spot

    2 free kicks

    6 outside the box in open play

Forget the formality of him breaking the scoring record, the challenge for Rooney lies beyond these qualifiers at next summer's finals in France.

At the 2010 World Cup, he was off form as Fabio Capello's side struggled.

He was suspended for the first two matches of Euro 2012 after being sent off in the qualifiers and at the 2014 World Cup he couldn't prevent England from being eliminated at the group stage and didn't perform particularly well again.

If we compare him with Ronaldo, their careers initially ran in parallel, in terms of their impact at Euro 2004 and as team-mates at Manchester United. But since then Ronaldo has left Rooney for dead.

They were regarded as equals in their time at United and maybe Rooney should also have left Old Trafford and tried his luck abroad because it would appear that since he left United, Ronaldo has gone to a different level, while Rooney has stagnated. Did he need a fresh challenge? He was making noises about leaving two years ago, whether it was to get a better deal out of United or he genuinely thought it was a good time to leave, and perhaps he should have.

In terms of his position, he's better just off the front. We are seeing him playing up front now in Louis van Gaal's system and he's finding life difficult. He looks like he'd prefer to play with someone else up there rather than be the focal point, the furthest forward.

Where he is now in his career, he needs somebody who will make runs forward that pull one or both of the opposition's centre-backs towards their own goal and away from that space he wants to operate in. Perhaps Anthony Martial, the 19-year-old for whom United paid Monaco £36 million (S$77.8 million), will provide that and help rejuvenate Rooney.

I've seen Rooney against Aston Villa and Swansea this season and it doesn't look like he is enjoying or understanding his role. When to run, when to stand still. The alarming part of it all is his touch, which is something he's always had. If you think back to the first game of the season against Tottenham, Rooney, at his best, would have put that chance away before Kyle Walker's own goal.

United have left themselves short in attack because he's the one player they have who is a proven Premier League goalscorer. If anything happens to him or he doesn't have a good season, where are United's goals coming from?

The evidence also shows that he has passed his peak years in goal-scoring terms. He scored 34 in 2009-10 and another 34 in 2011-12, between the ages of 24 and 26, but in the three seasons since he hasn't managed to score 20 in all competitions. He's won five league titles and two League Cups domestically but only one Champions League, which, again, isn't enough in European terms to elevate him into the company of Messi or Ronaldo.

In international terms, my take on him is that he would have been better off scoring fewer goals for England in total but more of the ones that matter at the sharp end of the big tournaments - the goals that would take them beyond the quarter-finals. We will remember Rooney for being England's top goalscorer, but not for being the difference in the big games when they needed him most.

Forget the formality of him breaking the scoring record, the challenge for Rooney lies beyond these qualifiers at next summer's finals in France.

He's got to be the difference there for England and score the goals that take them to a semi-final or final because, on too many occasions previously when the big tournaments have come round, he's simply not turned up.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2015, with the headline 'Skipper must now step up at big tournaments'. Print Edition | Subscribe