Wayne Rooney’s recent lack of game time is less important to Gareth Southgate than his leadership qualities in this period of flux for the England team.
The standard pre-tournament excitement on the summer was followed by increasingly predictable soul-searching, albeit few could have foreseen the Euro 2016 exit coming at the hands of Iceland.
Well-travelled Roy Hodgson was succeeded by well-versed Sam Allardyce, but his reign last week came to an ignominious end after just 67 days having been secretly-recorded making controversial comments by the Daily Telegraph.
England Under-21s manager Southgate has been temporarily parachuted in with the remit of restoring stability in the final four matches of the year, starting with the fast-approaching World Cup qualifiers against Malta and Slovenia.
That suddenness has led the interim manager to seek continuity, which is part of the rationale behind keeping Rooney as captain at a time when his place for club and country has come under more scrutiny than ever before.
“I think when I’ve been with the Under-21s I’ve had lots of players who aren’t playing but we are always looking at what’s our best team,” he said when asked about England’s all-time top scorer starting the last three Manchester United matches on the bench.
“If they aren’t playing, okay that’s not ideal, however is that player still in your best team and is he still one of your high potential players moving forward.
“The decision with Wayne is who is the best leader for this moment and there’s no reason to change that.
“It’s clear having talked to everyone who has been involved and I’ve witnessed it first-hand.”
Rooney’s 116 caps make him far and away the most experienced player in the 23-man group, with the only other players with more than 50 caps to their name Glen Johnson, surprisingly recalled following an absence of over two years, and Joe Hart.
Hart, Gary Cahill and Rooney have formed part of England’s leadership group in recent years, but Southgate believes says “what’s clear to me is you must have more people step forward”.
It is something is lacking in comparison to his time as a Three Lions player, albeit such leaders do not necessarily need to be in the starting line-up.
“I think people can lead without being on the pitch – by the way I’m not saying that will be the case this weekend,” he said, in reference to Rooney’s role against Malta on Saturday.
“I think you have to have leaders who aren’t in the team. If you base your leadership group on those who are playing then it’s a bit of a weakness.
“You have to have connections throughout because if you go to a tournament the group that doesn’t start can kill it.”