Wayne Rooney recently earned his 100th England cap in a European Championship qualifier at Wembley Stadium. He scored in that game, and then netted another two goals in a friendly against Scotland, putting him within reach of Bobby Charlton’s England goal-scoring record. At club level, Rooney has won five Premier League titles, a Champions League, several domestic cups, and a handful of individual awards. And yet many pundits insist that, despite his prodigious talent, he will never join the pantheon of footballing greats.
Rooney’s detractors emphasize a few key criticisms. He has repeatedly underperformed at the World Cup. He has endured long goal-scoring droughts. He can’t control his temper. He smokes cigarettes and eats unhealthy food. But the real reason Rooney hasn’t achieved greatness – or, at least, the kind of greatness pundits recognize – is the same reason he continues to be one of the most interesting players in world football.
Rooney has little in common with the “legends” of today’s game, the “superhumans” whose “world-class play” makes them “truly great.” Rooney doesn’t score nearly as often as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and unlike Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, he doesn’t embody some essential footballing aesthetic. He doesn’t move as elegantly as those players do; he roves from space to space, hunting the ball with a manic intensity that sometimes seems undisciplined. He never confines himself to a single position: When he plays as a striker, he drops deep to receive the ball, but when a coach starts him in central midfield or on the wing, he drives into the penalty area, desperate to score.
And therein lies Rooney’s problem. What English fans saw when the teenage Rooney netted this marvelous curler against Arsenal and then performed so well at the 2004 Euros was a Roy of the Rovers figure, a cartoon superhero who played every position, scored every goal, tackled every opponent. But over the last seven or eight years, the peak of Rooney’s career, the Roy of the Rovers model of athletic heroism – the ideal of an all-action footballer courageous enough to grab a pair of goalkeeping gloves and jump between the sticks – has gone out of fashion. Messi scores 50 goals a season partly because he has found a perfect positional niche in a system built around his special talents. At Real Madrid, Ronaldo benefits from a counterattacking formation that fully unleashes his pace and aggression.
Rooney – the game’s last true anarchist, a position-less entertainer who wants to do it all – will never find a tactical philosophy, or even a simple formation, that elevates his play. His talents defy regimentation. That’s what makes him so fun to watch. But that’s also why, in a world in which Messi and Ronaldo score with robotic consistency, the Internet punditocracy will never consider Rooney a footballing great.