Half an hour or so after Wayne Rooney trudged from the Old Trafford turf on Sunday, his Manchester United side smarting from a 1-1 draw with Stoke City, Dele Alli, was dancing his way through the Manchester City backline to put his Tottenham team 2-0 up.
Spurs were outstanding in their demolition of Pep Guardiola’s previously unbeaten City and Alli, with his quick feet, football intuition and lively movement, was pivotal to their success. With Spurs 1-0 up, Alli burst on to a loose ball and attempted to free Erik Lamela. The pass bounced to Heung-Min Son but Alli continued his run and swept the South Korean’s pass home.
Moments earlier the 20-year-old had executed a wonderful tight Cruyff turn on the edge of the City box that bamboozled Nicolas Otamendi and forced the Argentine to foul him – earning a booking – as Alli tried to return the favour to Son. Christian Eriksen almost scored from the free-kick. Later, Alli danced into the City area, quickest to a loose ball, forcing Fernandinho to bring him down and concede a penalty.
It was a huge game at the top end of the table and one man did more than any other – Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Eriksen included – to shape it.
Back to Rooney. He came on for the final 24 minutes of United’s match against Stoke, having of course been left on the bench by Jose Mourinho for the second successive week, and his impact was described on these pages by Tim Rich as “among the most dispiriting of his time at Old Trafford”.
Yes, he played a part in Anthony Martial’s goal – but only because while he flat-footedly dallied on the ball on the edge on the area, Stoke’s Geoff Cameron knocked it from his toe to the Frenchman. No tight Cruyff turn from Rooney. That flame that once burned so bright is but a flicker.
All this is not to simply denigrate Rooney. It is merely to point out that the England debate (should Rooney play? where should he play?) shouldn’t be a debate at all.
The England captain was admirably eloquent and revealing on Tuesday at St George’s Park. It was the most honest and enlightening assessment of his standing he has given according to seasoned Rooney watchers. His determination to play on is also admirable. He is not finished he insists, he has more to give. The flame can still be bright. That is all probably true. But at international level? It makes no sense.
Rooney even admitted himself during his warts-and-all press conference – where he acknowledged he did not have the pace of old – that it took the introduction of Alli, into the No 10 role, to rescue England during the World Cup qualifier against Slovakia. As soon as the Spurs player came on, Sam Allardyce’s team – his one and only England team – were enlivened and dangerous. Adam Lallana duly scored in stoppage time.
“I felt that the change which Sam Allardyce made, in putting Dele Alli in [at] No 10 and me and Eric Dier behind him, won us the game,” Rooney said. The first half of that assessment is spot on.
Allardyce thanked his lucky coin after the win over Slovakia – he should have thanked Alli whose movement and incisiveness instilled fear in the opposition defence. He should have had the courage to start Alli in that position (as should Roy Hodgson during the summer, which was obvious when England beat Germany in March – without Rooney in the team and with Alli wearing No 10). But those who feared Allardyce, the former Bolton and West Ham manager, didn’t have enough experience of handling the egos of top-level players had their doubts confirmed.
Rooney, clearly aware of his fading powers at the business end of the pitch, talks of dropping into midfield but England’s interim manager, Gareth Southgate, should move on – not help indulge Rooney in his attempts to reinvent himself as a deep-lying midfielder in order to wring out the last few drops of a wonderful international career. Jose Mourinho has quickly worked out that Rooney in midfield doesn’t work when you have other established options: step forward Paul Pogba, who was superb against Stoke despite his profligacy in front of goal, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera.
It was a sensible decision for Southgate to retain Rooney as captain. To have come in as interim manager and ripped the armband from his shirt would have been unnecessarily controversial. He is clearly good for morale so keeping him around the squad makes sense for now. Keeping him in the team makes none.