Ken Early: Roy Hodgson digging a hole for himself over Rooney
Picking the most famous player regardless of form has become an England tradition
The musical repertoire of travelling England fans still includes hardy perennials Ten German Bombers and Keep St George In My Heart (No Surrender). But watching them outside the Queen Victoria and O’Malley’s pubs in Marseille’s Old Port over the last couple of days, it was clear that ‘Vardy’s on Fire’ currently tops the charts.
Gala’s 1996 club classic Freed From Desire is once again dominating Europe, through these football songs celebrating Vardy and Will Grigg. While few can fathom the mysterious viral processes that have led to the chant’s sudden mass popularity, it’s clear that part of its charm for a crowd of football fans is that it has a couple of distinct phases. After the four-time repetition of “Vardy’s on fire, your defence is terrified” comes the joyous singalong chorus: “la la la la la laa la, la laa la, la laa”. Everyone starts jumping up and down, buffeting their scantily clad bodies together and flinging their drinks into the air.
All this is being observed by unsmiling French police and every time the drinks start to fly you can see eyes narrowing and knuckles tightening around billy club handles. These are the “all fun and games until somebody loses an eye” sort of moments that the police hate.
Many had hoped that what used to be called the ‘English Disease’ had faded into history, but the tear gas clouds in Marseille remind us that wherever a group of pissed-up fans and a group of tooled-up cops are separated by nothing more substantial than a language barrier, most of the ingredients for trouble are already in place.
There’s another English Disease that shows no sign of going into remission. That is the addiction of successive England coaches to picking the most famous players in the team regardless of their form, fitness, or suitability for their roles.
David Beckham played all of Euro 2004 unfit and was even allowed to take penalties, with disastrous consequences. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard played together in tournament after tournament despite being incompatible, because no England coach was brave enough to drop one of them.
Last night Roy Hodgson appeared at the Stade Velodrome alongside the man who will be the latest beneficiary of England’s indulgence towards its biggest names.
Hodgson has professed bemusement at the idea that anyone could question whether Rooney, England’s captain and record goalscorer, deserves his place. But his 53 international goals haven’t impressed tonight’s opponents, judging by a Russian reporter’s question to Rooney.
“Wayne, there is a popular opinion in Russian team that Wayne Rooney is not the same as he was a few years ago. What do you think about that, because this opinion is repeated by Russian players and even by Russian assistant coach. Thank you.”
International tournament pressers are usually bland but every so often you get a belter of a question like that – the sort that doesn’t come up too often on the domestic English circuit.
Rooney’s pale blue eyes stared back frostily.
“Everyone who watches the game of football is entitled to their opinions. I know the qualities I have, and I don’t have to sit here and defend myself. I’ve played this game for a lot of years. I’m aware my game has changed slightly over the years, and in my opinion it’s changed for the better. The opinions that matter to me are the opinions of my coaches and team-mates.”
Not many people share Rooney’s conviction that his game has changed for the better. His goals-per-game ratio, to look at one crude but significant measure, has been in decline for years: 0.79 in 2012, to 0.47 in 2014, to 0.36 in 2016.
An Argentinian journalist then asked how Rooney was finding his new position.
“I’ve never said I’ve changed my position, I said that I’ve changed my game slightly. I’ve seen players who’ve done that, and probably been better players. It’s natural for a footballer to do that . . . With United I’ve played in midfield. It’s a natural, you know, way of football. It happens. I always feel with my football intelligence I can play there and further my career there as well.”
The players Rooney had in mind were presumably Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, who moved deeper as they got older and aged like wine. But the “natural” process he was talking about is slowing down with age.
Rooney hasn’t moved back into midfield because his game has “changed for the better”. It’s because his body has changed for the worse. He has lost the pace and agility that once made him a great centre forward.
There was a time when Rooney expected to play centre forward and would sulk if asked to play elsewhere. Now, as he told a Chinese reporter, his favourite position is simply “on the pitch”. These days he’ll do whatever job is on offer.
Hodgson’s determination to get Rooney into the team led him to devise a system against Portugal with Rooney at the tip of a midfield diamond behind Kane and Vardy, with Alli in a shuttling role on the left of midfield.
The result was that all four players looked bad.
Kane and Vardy were forced wide by Rooney coming up and crowding their space in the middle. Alli, who usually plays further forward, was anonymous in a role that required him to do a lot of defending.
As for Rooney, for whose benefit this system has been devised? He accomplished nothing. But then, he has never played in a system like this.
As John Terry explains in a contribution to a recent book by Carlo Ancelotti, Rooney’s game has always been about dropping into the space between the opposing defenders and midfielders, and forcing the central defenders to decide whether to let him have the ball, or follow him out and leave space behind to exploit.
Rooney’s whole career has been spent exploiting that uncertainty. But if you play him behind two strikers, rather than one, then you remove that uncertainty entirely.
The two central defenders know who to pick up: the two strikers. They won’t be distracted by Rooney’s movement between the lines. There’s a midfielder free somewhere on the pitch who can handle that.
Ancelotti’s solution to the Rooney problem was to tell his defenders to keep their position and let Rooney have the ball in front of them. He felt that was the situation in which Rooney was least dangerous. That’s the very situation in which Rooney will likely have most of his possession tonight, if Hodgson uses the diamond again.
Louis van Gaal never asked Rooney to do this. He settled on using him left of centre in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with a winger outside and only one forward occupying the space in front.
If Hodgson uses Rooney behind two strikers, England will probably play badly and Rooney will get a large share of the blame.
But given that Rooney is assured of his place, it’s hard to see what else can be done, other than playing Jamie Vardy on the right wing, or dropping him entirely. Imagine how dropping Vardy would go down with the fans who have spent the previous 24 hours singing ‘Vardy’s On Fire’.
Last night, Hodgson said: “What I would like is, when things don’t go absolutely our way, for occasionally some sort of sympathy to be shown.”
Best of luck with that.