Dare Roy axe Rooney?Comment on this story
London - The argument to drop Wayne Rooney - if there has to be one -starts with Daniel Sturridge, who is the England player most likely to score a goal at the moment.
Sturridge has earned the right to be considered England’s centre forward after a prolific season at Liverpool and goals in his last two internationals.
With 27 goals in 38 games for club and country, he has forced Roy Hodgson to hand over the No 9 shirt and play him in the centre, nearest the goal, rather than out wide as he has in the past.
This means finding somewhere else for Rooney to operate. It ought not to be a problem. He can simply play off Sturridge, in the No 10 role, or even alongside him in (whisper it) something like a 4-4-2 formation.
For a long time, Rooney’s best position was thought to be off the main striker, between the lines of midfield and attack. But in general his most productive games for England, since Euro 2004, have been as a centre forward.
He has enjoyed two purple patches: one under Fabio Capello in qualification for the 2010 World Cup, often playing alongside Emile Heskey, and another since Hodgson took over, with 10 of his 38 international goals in 16 games under the current manager. Sturridge, however, is not conducive to strike partnerships.
Even at Liverpool this season, where he and Luis Suarez have been brilliant, Sturridge had a better goals-per-minute ratio without the Uruguayan.
In the last two England games, he has come alive, seemed freer, using the space left once Rooney has been replaced - after an hour against Denmark and after 66 minutes against Peru.
Do they inhibit each other? Does Hodgson sacrifice Rooney to get more from Sturridge, who is four years younger? At 28, this could even be Rooney’s final World Cup, playing as he does in a young man’s position.
Does Hodgson persevere with them together? Should England use their two friendlies in Miami, against Ecuador on Wednesday and Honduras on Saturday, to work on a better understanding and improve Rooney’s match-sharpness?
Friday’s 3-0 win against Peru was Rooney’s first game in more than a month. Although he worked hard and looks in superb physical condition, he may appreciate another chance to play and refine his touch; perhaps even find his first international goal since October.
“Our plan on Wednesday is basically to start the people who didn’t start on Friday,” said Hodgson. ‘That would be the plan, but plans like that sometimes go astray and I’m not prepared to make any promises.’
The argument is complicated by the emergence of others. Adam Lallana’s international career has started with promise, while Hodgson is fond of Danny Welbeck’s pace.
Against some of the better teams at the World Cup, particularly against Italy in the opening game when possession will be crucial, there must be a temptation for Hodgson to clutter the midfield with three specialists - Steven Gerrard, Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson, for example, with wingers either side and one up front.
Alternatively, Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley are capable of playing in the hole behind the main striker in a 4-2-3-1 shape. It is where Sterling played when he first came on for Rooney against Peru.
“It would be stupid for me to say on the basis of just a few minutes that this is Raheem Sterling’s best position,’ said Hodgson. ‘I’m not even certain I necessarily want Raheem to have a best position. I want him to be able to play in the position where we need him. On Friday, we thought it would be good to bring him on initially in the position behind the front player, where we’ve seen him play well. But then we wanted to bring Ross Barkley on, so we moved him wide and he did OK there. I’m sure he’s going to be a very big player going forward, but I would rather see some of these younger players treated with a little more caution.”
Hodgson warned against an obsession with Rooney but the mere fact this debate is open is encouraging for England. Normally these tournaments are preceded by heaping pressure on his shoulders to carry the nation through.
This time there is an option to use him tactically: send him out for an hour without being afraid to haul him off. It might even be a way for him to be more effective, although it will be a brave move by Hodgson, with no way of knowing how he might react to being left out.
It is not a question of discarding him, it is about getting the best from him. Rooney will be a key weapon for England at the World Cup.