Does Wayne Rooney really need a strike partner?

Wayne Rooney- those two words seem to occupy any article involving England’s world cup hopes and let’s face it rightly so.

Despite the talent named in Fabio Capello’s provisional squad Rooney is the one man who looks genuinely irreplaceable in the team. As Manchester United have found out this season, when you take Rooney out of your team even average opposition becomes a problem.

Looking at the England team on paper you could genuinely believe that even without Wazza they had a chance of going far. After all Frank Lampard, Steve Gerrard and erm, James Milner are among some of the top players in world football- sort of.

The trouble is that not everyone seems to replicate their club form for the national side, with Gerrard and Lampard often being rightly accused of failing to live up to expectations.

To be fair to Lampard he’s been a little hard done by England-wise as I recall him being totally overlooked by many in the English press during Euro 2004 due to the emergence of Rooney. Lampard managed to score three goals yet with all the Roo-mania –to quote almost every tabloid from the time, poor old Frank barely got a look-in for what was a truly excellent tournament for him.

In 2006 Lampard was lambasted for not only missing his shoot-out penalty but also having more shots on goal than anyone else and still not scoring- a true victim of the cyber-age obsession with stats.

Gerrard is another one who’s been accused of being lacklustre on the international stage and has four less goals than his midfield partner despite having played one more game.  While the last world cup was hardly considered a success for Gerrard it should be noted that he finished as England’s top-score- albeit with only 2 goals.

This season Gerrard has had a somewhat disappointing campaign whereas Lampard’s has been nothing short of phenomenal.  Everyone talks about Didier Drogba being the key to Chelsea’s success and while this is no doubt true how Wayne Rooney must’ve wished he had someone of Lampard’s quality at Old Trafford to help with the goal scoring burden. 22 League goals from Lampard is only two less than Rooney himself and there-in lies a massive difference between the top two clubs.

Although Gerrard’s been poor by his standards nine league goals and seven assists in 33 games is not to be sniffed at –as Robbie Fowler used to say.

Gerrard’s also weighed in with a hat-trick of goals during England’s qualifying campaign so he’s hardly been a disaster on that front.

The point is both Gerrard and Lampard are still potential match-winners and must surely start for England in South Africa.

Fabio Capello seems to have a liking for Emile Heskey as Rooney’s strike-partner as he ‘brings out the best in him.’

For me this may have some truth but is a misleading analysis. Heskey may be better suited to partnering Rooney than say Jermaine Defoe or Peter Crouch but that doesn’t mean he has to partner him.

All season long Wayne Rooney has pretty much carried Manchester United almost single-handedly more often than not playing as a lone striker.

Against teams such as Manchester City, Liverpool, AC Milan and Arsenal –not to mention Chelsea away where Rooney played well and United were unlucky- Wazza led the line superbly, not only weighing in with goals but also holding the ball up well for the attacking midfielders to feed off him.

If Rooney was asked to do the same job for England I don’t see any reason why Lampard and Gerrard wouldn’t benefit by being encouraged to support him at the quickest given opportunity.

A five man midfield also allows Gerrard to fill the role he has done for Liverpool so often- playing just off the front man, rather than being pushed out wide which for me dilutes his effectiveness.

Then there’s the wide positions, with five in midfield you could have say Aaron Lennon or James Milner or whoever on the wings which is much more balanced. With this formation Capello can still accommodate a defensive midfielder-which he always seems to like- allowing Lampard and Gerrard to concentrate more on attack.

The argument is of course that Rooney as a lone striker is not as effective as he would be with a partner. Well here I’d argue that he is, after all anyone who’s seen United this season will know that Rooney has grown into the role. If you take the two Arsenal games as an example, at Old Trafford at times Rooney looked isolated and drifted a little bit too deep, yet at the Emirates he gave a master-class in not just passing and holding but also counter-attacking.

United have adopted a 4-5-1 formation for most of the big games which can be changed to a 4-3-3 of sorts when they’re attacking. This formation could work for England with two wingers from a five-man midfield linking up with Rooney when they’re on the offensive.

Then there’s the question of have any other strikers really done enough to convince they could really perform at the World Cup.

Emile Heskey’s record for Aston Villa this season is quite frankly abysmal with 31 appearances, 15 of which were starts and a paltry 3 goals and 2 assists. Heskey’s record for England is again nothing to brag about with one goal in his last seven starts. People will point to the fact that he’s also got 2 assists but when you’re playing alongside Wayne Rooney gaining assists is not that difficult as even Dimitar Berbatov will testify.

Jermaine Defoe has scored his fair share of goals for Tottenham this season, but 4 in his last 14 appearances leaves me for one feeling a little worried as to whether the season exertions have caught up with him.

Peter Crouch is probably the only striker in recent memory who is more prolific for England than he is for Spurs. Everyone’s favourite light-bulb changer only has 8 league goals this season, yet has appeared in every league game- with 21 of them starts. Yet Crouch’s goal-scoring record for England is better than even Rooney’s and this season his six caps have brought five goals. There still remains the question mark of whether he can perform against the top international sides has most of his England goals have come against small-time opposition.

That just leaves Darren Bent who has been prolific this season for Sunderland, yet for some reason doesn’t seem to have fully convinced Capello of his international worth. The smart money’s on Bent not even making the plane despite his 24 league goals.

Looking at Rooney you can say without any fear of getting laughed at that he’s one of the top strikers in the world, good enough to get into almost any team. However the same can not be said of any of his potential strike partners and the fact that two of them –Heskey and Crouch aren’t even regulars for their clubs speaks volumes.

My point is with the obvious quality Lampard and Gerrard possess and the ability of Rooney to operate as a lone front man- is it not time that Capello tried the 4-5-1 formula that’s seems to work at Old Trafford and bring out the best in the ‘white Pele’?

Read more of Justin’s work at his excellent blog ‘Name on the Trophy’