Of all the misconceptions and delusions stalking the England team at the moment, the prospect that Wayne Rooney should be deployed in midfield is one of the oddest and most persistent.
The question has been given a renewed legitimacy with the decline of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, as it seems England continues a pathological addiction to an energetic box-to-box attacker in midfield. On paper, Rooney seems to fit the role - energetic, capable of defending, creative, an excellent finisher. Yet even at Manchester United, a squad blessed with numerous strikers and cursed with a black hole in midfield, Rooney is no longer considered for such a role.
Perhaps that is because Manchester United fans have actually seen it in practice before. Rooney as a straightforward cog in a central midfield of three or four has always been and will always be a silly idea. His football brain is a temperamental one - while he is outstandingly reliable at making the right decision under pressure when leading an attack, he lacks the concentration and discipline to cope with play coming from all directions. His time in such a role at United was one of continually wasted attacks as he gave the ball away with poor passes and failed to show the requisite awareness of how play was developing around him. At first, it was blamed on his poor form in a period which involved a disappointing performance at the World Cup in South Africa and a transfer request, but as the goals returned to his game, the wasteful displays of leaden-footed cloggery in the middle of the pitch did not.
Sir Alex Ferguson has deployed him in a variety of midfield roles, one of which was successful and another of which looks promising. In United's great side of 2007-09, Rooney excelled on the left, despite the laments of English pundits demanding his return to the centre. It was a position in which his industry and physicality gave him an edge, and his creativity was allowed to flourish in clear boundaries. Being positioned on the flank gave him less to concentrate on, and he was capable of some extraordinary moves. This pass in particular shows the possibilities it unleashed - at no point while playing in a midfield three has Rooney ever looked capable of such extraordinary vision and technique.
Playing at the tip of a midfield diamond gives similar advantages - although positioned in the middle of the pitch, with three players behind him waiting to mop up any mistakes and keep watch for the opposition, Rooney is free to focus on attacking, and move out to either flank to provide width. The result is a clearer, more focused display of productivity, where concentrating on a more limited task allows his creativity to make up for his lack of awareness.
Until England find another striker of comparable quality, suggesting Rooney would be best deployed elsewhere on the pitch for his national team is idiotic. For Manchester United, who are blessed in that department, he is clearly best-suited to the left or at the tip of the diamond if Ferguson chooses to continue the experiment. The notion that Rooney is best when let off the leash has some truth in it, but it should come with the caveat that he needs clear boundaries. A truly free role requires tremendous self-discipline, awareness, and a realistic sense of decision-making with regards to positioning. Rooney possesses none of these, and pretending that he does would only waste the talents he actually has. England and Manchester United have a very good forward on their hands who is best deployed with few responsibilities and close to the opponent's goal. Can't that be enough for them?