Last September, Wayne Rooney was writing himself into England history as the country’s most prolific goalscorer of all time. His sterling displays as a centre-forward over the last 13 years have rightly earned him a place alongside the likes of Bobby Charlton, Jimmy Greaves, Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker in the pantheon of truly great England strikers.
But now Wayne Rooney is a midfielder, for both club and country. Having recovered from a knee injury in April which had cost him two months of Manchester United’s season, he slotted into the engine room as opposed to the forward line on his return. For him there was no battle with Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial for a place at the head of United’s strike force, rather he was favoured to Morgan Schneiderlin or Ander Herrera – and sometimes both – to create from the centre for Louis van Gaal’s side.
The 30-year-old even admitted his disappointment in having to lead the attacking line after Martial pulled up lame in the warm-up ahead of United’s trip to Norwich in May on the very day Van Gaal had finally decided to leave Rashford at home for a breather. Rooney still turned in a crucial performance, teeing up Juan Mata’s winner, but the Dutch manager revealed afterwards that his captain had been far from enamoured with the need to return to his former striking role.
And there were two England performances leading up to the European Championship which suggested a role change might be on the cards at international level too. First, there was the memorable 3-2 defeat of Germany in Berlin which saw Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy excel up front in Rooney’s absence. Then there was the clumsy and unconvincing attempt by Roy Hodgson to have his skipper circumvent the space left by Kane and Vardy when they start in wider roles against Portugal in their final warm-up fixture.
As such, it was no surprise to see Rooney line up in the centre of midfield for their Group B opener against Russia, and for much of the match he showed his range of passing and his eagerness to provide a presence in the central third. However, he tired quickly and was eventually replaced for the final 15 minutes, looking hugely fatigued by the extra work he had had to get through in his new role.
But if he is to make a successful conversion to the midfield in the longer term, and more immediately against Wales in Lens on Thursday, Rooney is going to have to learn how to conserve his energy better. As a striker, you get those valuable seconds to take a breather when the play retreats into your defensive third in much the same way as centre-backs are relieved of the need to exert themselves when their attack is on top.
In the middle of the pitch there is no such time for a rest, and Rooney is learning that the hard way. The odd 60-minute burst is all well and good, but tournaments are won by 90-minute performances produced once every four or five days. The early signs are that there is something Rooney can offer to the England midfield, but it may not be broad enough and it may not be consistent enough.
Much is made of Andrea Pirlo’s reassignment to a playmaking role in his early days at AC Milan but not only was the Italian more intelligent in his movement than the United star currently is, he also happened to have the tenacious Gennaro Gattuso doing much of the hard yards for him for much of his San Siro spell before then going on to get the same kind of support from Arturo Vidal after moving to Juventus.
There are no Gattusos or Vidals in England right now, and Rooney is no Pirlo just yet either. His midfield career is still in its infancy, with the jury very much out on whether he can make the transition full time - especially after a 14-year senior spell which has taken a couple of yards away from his sharpness. At club level Jose Mourinho is sure to make a determined and clear assessment on whether his captain has what it takes to occupy a role in the middle, but Hodgson may not be so decisive.
When England take the pitch in Lens on Thursday, they will need their inspirational skipper to do what he has done many times before in delivering a key performance. But he may well find providing a winning display from midfield an awful lot harder than even he realises.