Dexterous Rooney provides options for Capello

By Rhys Hayward

Wayne Rooney (photo: Tsutomu Takasu)

For those who still harbour doubts over Wayne Rooney’s ability to play as the lone striker, his role in the champions’ convincing defeat of Arsenal stands as pretty conclusive evidence.

The question of how to coax the best out of England’s most talented player has been the primary concern of his manager at both club and international level for some time.

For Fabio Capello, Rooney producing in the white of England is essential if they are to make a significant impact in South Africa this summer, whilst Ferguson has required the striker to fill the significant void created by the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Conventional wisdom has held that Rooney is best employed as a ‘second striker’; the creative force behind a more physical front man. Emile Heskey’s sometimes controversial reinstatement to the national team has served Capello well during the World cup qualifying campaign and crucially provided an outlet from which the likes of Rooney and Steven Gerrard have prospered.

But developments at Manchester United in recent weeks will have surely alerted Capello to other more dexterous possibilities. Dimitar Berbatov’s failure to slot into the United side has forced Ferguson’s hand and Rooney, as he did on Sunday, has often played alone, and with increasingly positive results.

The role of the striker has changed rapidly over the past decade or so and players of ilk of Michael Owen or Ruud van Nistelrooy have made way for more versatile, industrious forwards such as Carlos Tevez.

Sunday’s match between two of Europe’s top rated clubs illustrated this evolution with United and Arsenal’s forward lines spearheaded by Rooney and Andrey Arshavin, neither of whom fits even the loosest, traditional interpretation of a striker.

With Emile Heskey as a partner, the weakest part of Rooney’s game, playing with his back to goal, was irrelevant and between the two of them England have one complete forward. But though Heskey’s presence helped Capello’s men bully their way to wins over lesser opposition, recent experiences against the likes of Brazil and Spain has shown how lightweight this can leave them in midfield.

But something has clicked in Rooney of late. His form has kept Manchester United in the title race and also allowed Ferguson to employ a five man midfield in both key victories last week.

Rooney has realised that it is to both his and United’s benefit if he is more present in central attacking areas but without negating his natural desire to drop off slightly in order to receive the ball.

Other factors have also aided his development, most notably the recognition that his heading needed improvement and the undertones of frustration which were once blatantly obvious when he played out of position are no longer present.

Whether or not Capello will use the friendly against Egypt in March to test a similar formation remains to be seen, but the kind of pragmatic mind which retrieved Heskey from the wilderness will surely appreciate that the World Cup cannot be won with a primitive 4-4-2 formation.

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