The English striker dilemma

February, 22, 2010
02/22/10
11:18
AM ET

In an interview with the British paper The Observer, which was published on The Guardian's Web site, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson offered an anecdote involving an exchange between himself and his star player, Wayne Rooney, at a typical Man United training session.

According to Ferguson, the back-and-forth goes like this:

Rooney: "What's the team?"

Ferguson: "You're not playing."

Rooney: "Come on, give me your team."

Ferguson: "No, I won't. I'm still thinking about it."

In The Guardian interview, Ferguson finishes the story with this: "Then he says, 'I'll give you my team.' And he gives me his team. He's brilliant at it. He's never far wrong. He thinks about it, you see. He knows the game."

It's an interesting exchange between one of the world's greatest players at the moment and the person who knows him best as a player. Considering Rooney's talent for team selection, perhaps he should offer his expertise to England national team coach Fabio Capello.

It's been a bizarre couple of weeks for England, which will face the United States in both teams' World Cup openers. Scandal has engulfed the pages of the British tabloids after it was revealed John Terry was having an affair with the girlfriend of Chelsea and England teammate Wayne Bridge. The details are more worthy of a VH1 reality show than a national team captain, and they almost make Tiger Woods' travails seem tame by comparison. Terry has since relinquished/was stripped of his captaincy.

None of this disguises what has been the most pressing and enduring problem Capello faces in the months leading up until June: Who will play alongside Rooney? The Italian has been hailed for his discipline and organization since taking over the English side, but the master tactician has yet to solve the problem of finding a natural attacking partner for his most important player.

A simple solution may be found in Rooney's exchange with Ferguson. It might seem out of character for Capello, but why not kick the question back to Rooney? Let him decide who he wants to play alongside, if he has any preference at all. Freed from the imposing shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney is enjoying the best season of his career and has vaulted himself into an elite category shared by former Man United teammate and Barcelona's Lionel Messi.

An exchange between Capello and Rooney might sound something like this:

Capello: "Wayne, we've tried everything, with mixed results. I'm willing to let you decide. This conversation will never leave this room and I'll accept full responsibility for the outcome. If you feel more comfortable with a certain player, consider it done. If you don't like playing with a certain player, he'll never see the field with you."

What would Rooney say? A list of the likely candidates would include:

Gabriel Agbonlahor

Pro: The 23-year old Aston Villa striker has talent coming out of his ears and has turned in some performances this season that hint at his becoming one of the Premier League's most dangerous strikers. "Explosive" is probably the best way to describe him, and he has the speed to get behind and cause problems for defenders.

Con: "Explosive," yes, but "consistent"? Not so much. Is he too much of an unfinished product? He certainly has the physical tools to be an international player but might lack the refinement and experience. He's probably more likely to be used as a super-sub if he's in South Africa at all.

Emile Heskey

Pro: The wily veteran has been a reliable performer for the national team. He's a stereotypical target man who's comfortable with his back to goal and is proof that a striker's production doesn't always have to be measured in goals.

Con: That Heskey still is in the discussion at 32 years old probably is all the proof you need that this is an area England has had difficulty addressing.

Carlton Cole

He's the new and improved version of Heskey, without the experience. A strong and powerful player, he's surprisingly good with the ball at his feet and was having the best season of his career before being injured. At 6-foot-3, he doesn't give much away to Oguchi Onyewu physically.

Con: Cole is inexperienced at the top level and has really started to deliver on his potential only this season, after failing to break into Chelsea's side early in his career. Can he be effective without the benefit of a lot of service?

Peter Crouch

Pro: At 6-7, Crouch provides the kind of target man whom few teams in the world can dream of and has World Cup experience.

Con: The experiment has been tried and hasn't worked out. He's a hard worker and has better technique for his size than he's given credit for, but Crouch proved at Liverpool that he wasn't a Champion's League-quality player and similarly has proved with England that he isn't international quality.

Michael Owen

Pro: Owen plays with Rooney at Man United and has accepted a lesser role. He still possesses the predatory instincts and clinical finishing (see: a hat trick in CL versus Wolfsburg) that made him so dangerous in his heyday.

Con: He's accepted a lesser role because he's a lesser player. Owen hasn't featured for Man United much this season ("unused substitute" appears often in his stat line), and that hat trick is pretty much all there is to point to this season.

Darren Bent

Pro: Bent's 15 goals for Sunderland this season indicate his goal-scoring prowess.

Con: Despite having a respectable goal-scoring record, he was sold by Tottenham to Sunderland after two years for considerably less than the team paid for him. And though Bent is one of the league's top scorers, he's much closer to fighting relegation than fighting for a European place. He also never has played in the Champion's League and has only a handful of England caps to his credit.

Jermain Defoe

Pro: Scores goals in bunches. When he's in the mood, Defoe is one of the best in the Premier League. He has started 23 games for Tottenham this season and has scored 16 goals. He has had considerable experience with the national team and, at 27, seems to be at the right stage in his career to warrant inclusion in England's starting 11.

Con: Defoe needs to dominate the ball and relies on an endless supply of service in order to be effective. He's not equipped to play as a "second striker" and hasn't really shown the ability to create goals -- just finish them. Selfish is a desired quality in most strikers, but his role on England's side would be to complement Rooney, not the other way around. And at 27, I can't help but wonder if there's a reason he hasn't yet found his way on to one of the "Big Four" teams in the Premier League.

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