Rio De Janeiro – Following an uneven display against Italy in his side's opening World Cup defeat, Wayne Rooney is at risk of turning from England's biggest asset into manager Roy Hodgson's biggest headache.
The 28-year-old Manchester United striker has been his country's talisman for the best part of a decade, but as Hodgson looks to flood his team with youthful vim and vigour, there is a fear that Rooney is starting to get in the way.
Rooney's diminished status was clear from the moment Saturday's game in Manaus kicked off, as he padded over to the left flank in order to accommodate Liverpool's teenage livewire Raheem Sterling in the number 10 role.
While Sterling's electric pace and neat close control make him an obvious attacking threat, it was also with defensive considerations in mind that Hodgson decided to deploy him in the centre.
Hodgson explained that Sterling's “pace and sharpness” made him an ideal candidate to “nullify” Italy midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi, and while the 19-year-old buzzed about to useful effect, Rooney's defensive contribution was markedly less successful.
England left-back Leighton Baines was left exposed throughout the first half, with Rooney unable to prevent Italy pair Matteo Darmian and Antonio Candreva from doubling up on the Everton defender due to his exertions further up the field.
Hodgson addressed the problem by getting Rooney to swap places with Danny Welbeck at half-time, but five minutes later Baines again found himself isolated as Candreva teed up Mario Balotelli for what would prove to be the decisive goal in a 2-1 win.
“There are things to work on defensively, because down that left-hand side we had big problems,” said former England captain Alan Shearer, now a BBC analyst.
“Wayne Rooney was not enjoying his role there in the first half because he was having to work so hard.”
Worryingly for Rooney, he fared only marginally better in his preferred domain at the other end of the pitch.
Despite creating Daniel Sturridge's equaliser with a sumptuous left-wing cross, he touched the ball only twice inside the Italy area and when he procured a clear sight of goal in the second half, he snatched at the chance and dragged the ball wide of the near post.
Rooney has now gone nine World Cup games without scoring and for former England manager Graham Taylor, the solution is straightfoward.
“I am not so certain Wayne likes playing wide,” Taylor said. “I would prefer to see him up front because that is his best position.
“I'm not in any way, shape or form telling Roy who to select, but for me it's a little bit worrying seeing his performances at the moment. They are not of the Wayne Rooney type that we know.”
With Sturridge now England's undisputed first-choice number nine and Sterling apparently preferable in both a defensive and attacking sense, Rooney's place in the team would appear to be under threat.
Hodgson, however, contests that utilising a 4-2-3-1 system with players of a purely offensive vocation in the attacking midfield band meant that England always ran the risk of finding themselves exposed.
Asked about his team's defensive shortcomings on the left side, he told reporters: “I didn't think we defended that area particularly well, but I think we were playing with very offensive wide players.
“We were playing with Rooney, Welbeck, and Sterling. We are going to get caught from time to time in those areas, I am afraid.”
Hodgson may be tempted to tweak his system for England's second game against Uruguay on Thursday, but he is adamant that whichever team he selects, getting Rooney into attacking areas will be a key concern.
“Of course we want him in the area,” Hodgson said.
“I thought he set up the goal really well with that clever pass. Then after Leighton Baines put him in with that pass, I was convinced he was going to score when he got himself room in the box.
“But yes, we want Wayne in the box, and there's no question we will get him in the box.” – Sapa-AFP