By Jamie Dunn
For all the positives taken from England's defeat to Italy in their Group C World Cup opener, the debate rolls on: how do you solve a problem like Wayne Rooney?
Having provided an excellent cross for Daniel Sturridge's goal in the 2-1 loss, Rooney would no doubt object to being referred to as a 'problem'. But his performance playing from the left hand side in Manaus has been the major talking point in amongst some pleasing overtures aimed at Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Danny Welbeck.
Roy Hodgson described the discussion surrounding the forward as an "obsession" prior to the tournament, while Gary Neville has dismissed it as par for the course for a player of his calibre; the English media must have a star to focus on and, in 2014, it is Rooney.
The fact remains, however, that the display against Italy was far from vintage from the makeshift wide forward, who now looks set to be restored to a central role for the crucial clash with Uruguay on Thursday.
But how can England get the best out of Rooney? From which position should Hodgson deploy the Manchester United man?
Rooney has largely adopted a central role for England in the 17 international games he has been involved in since elimination from Euro 2012.
And Paul Scholes has called for his former Manchester United team-mate to be returned to his "best position" against Uruguay.
"Diego Godin won La Liga with Atletico Madrid last season and is a very good centre-half – but Godin can't be expected to cover for the mistakes of his partner, Diego Lugano," Scholes told Paddy Power.
"Lugano is slow, he couldn't handle Costa Rica, and he was released by West Brom – it doesn't say much for him. Wayne Rooney can destroy Lugano, if Wayne is played in his best position."
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The striker was on target again with a header, via a deflection, in the rain-affected 1-1 draw with Poland days later. Playing alongside Jermain Defoe and substitute Welbeck, England struggled to create, but he missed one golden opportunity, firing over before Kamil Glik equalised in the second half.
Rooney was back up front with Defoe for the 8-0 thrashing of San Marino, scoring a free kick and linking up particularly well with Oxlade-Chamberlain before eventually coming off for Sturridge, who bagged his first international goal.
He notched with a header again in Montenegro in March, in a game in which England struggled and eventually drew 1-1, and took up a position up front at the new Maracana in June 2013 for the 2-2 draw with Brazil.
Once again, Rooney linked up well with Oxlade-Chamberlain, laying on an equaliser for the Arsenal man, before firing England in front from distance, utilising a forward run from the youngster.
He was the central figure in the 4-1 victory over Montenegro and 2-0 win against Poland in October 2013 which wrapped up qualification for the World Cup.
In these games, surrounded by players full of pace in Andros Townsend, Sturridge and Welbeck, Rooney scored a tap-in against Montenegro before heading in against Poland. Townsend and Sturridge were also on target against Montenegro.
And Rooney was back in a central position in the 3-0 victory over Peru, with Sturridge stealing the show from the right with an excellent curling effort.
With quick players like Sturridge, Welbeck and Sterling operating around him, Rooney could find the space to terrorise the back four if he is moved infield.
Rooney started up front in the 2-1 victory over Brazil at Wembley in February 2013, but was successful dropping deep into the hole, allowing Welbeck and Walcott into the space in front, making runs from the flanks.
The forward linked up well with Jack Wilshere and got his goal by hanging back and following up a saved Walcott shot, before setting up Lampard for the winner with a deft pass back to the Chelsea man.
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Against Germany shortly after, Rooney again linked up play well in the first half, without ever getting in positions to trouble England's illustrious opponents. In another experimental friendly at Wembley, he was replaced by the promising Ross Barkley with 20 minutes left.
Experimentation with his positioning continued in the 1-0 friendly win against Denmark in which he failed to score in an hour on the pitch, despite combining well with Sturridge, who did find the back of the net with a header.
If Rooney is dropped into a deeper central role, the likes of Sturridge, Sterling and Welbeck would be able to drift into the middle in front of him, giving England a potentially four-pronged scoring threat.
|ON THE LEFT
Against Italy, out on the left, Rooney came in for plenty of criticism. He ran into space on the flank to collect a Sterling pass and deliver an inch-perfect cross to Sturridge, but tactically, England were found wanting with the Manchester United man at times positioned in no-man's land.
Leighton Baines, in particular, struggled, as he was exposed to the dual threat of full-back Matteo Darmian and the intelligent Antonio Candreva, who dropped into pockets on the England left and eventually sent in a cross for Mario Balotelli to head in the winner - though Rooney had by this point switched positions.
"Wayne is experienced," said Welbeck, who has no concerns regarding where his Old Trafford team-mate plays.
"He can pretty much handle any situation. He has been through a lot in his career. You say he is playing out of position, but he has played there plenty of times for United as well.
"He has not just played there in the Premier League, but the Champions League semi-final and final, so he is accustomed to that position and can play it well."
Rooney had played on the left in the warm-up game in Miami against Ecuador and was able to drift in and finish off a Rickie Lambert chance from inches out.
But it was a fairly difficult afternoon for Rooney, who had more joy cutting inside than pulling wide for the 64 minutes he was on the pitch.
In England's final World Cup qualifier against Poland, too, Rooney showed an ability and willingness to drift on to either flank, popping up on both sides in an interchangeable attack while also scoring a header from a central position.
And that interchangeability should be the focus for England. Against Italy, Hodgson's side created plenty but were unable to control possession and, as a result, Rooney was at times isolated.
Talented as Uruguay are, they are unlikely to retain the ball as effectively as Andrea Pirlo or Claudio Marchisio and as a result, Rooney could find himself more involved - even if he is deployed from the left.
|ON THE BENCH
England have played just six games without Rooney since their elimination from Euro 2012 and lost only once, against Sweden, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored all four goals including a stunning overhead kick from 30 yards, with Raheem Sterling making his debut and Wilfried Zaha also involved.
And it was an experimental England side, featuring the likes of Tom Cleverley, Adam Johnson and Jack Butland, who got their revenge against an equally patchwork Italy side in August 2012.
England even kicked off their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign in September 2012 against Moldova and Ukraine again without the forward, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the side and Jermain Defoe operating as the lone striker.
The results were mixed - England thrashed Moldova 5-0, but were held to a 1-1 draw by Ukraine at Wembley with a Frank Lampard penalty bailing them out late on.
Hodgson's men flourished in his absence against a weak Moldova side in a 4-0 victory at Wembley in September 2013, as Rickie Lambert notched his second goal in as many games with a header and Welbeck scored twice to edge England closer to a place at the World Cup.
A few days later, England travelled to Ukraine without Rooney and did enough to secure a much-needed point, but the game was bereft of chances.
For all the frustrations surrounding Rooney, England are simply a better side when he is involved. If Hodgson can produce the best from the forward, the Three Lions stand a strong chance of picking up a crucial three points against Uruguay.