All international breaks are interruptions, but by rights this one, the one before a major tournament, should be as acceptable as they come. Euro 2016 is but a couple of months away, and the chance to see all the major competitors make the final adjustments to their teams would be fascinating ... were it not for the fact that we're approaching the sharp ends of title races, of relegation battles and of European campaigns. Leicester don't play this weekend. What a letdown.
Then of course there's the question of injuries, and just how many of Europe's hamstring strains are precautionary, if not wholly imaginary. Happily, England have no such worries: as they prepare to face Germany and the Netherlands, all the names missing and withdrawn from Roy Hodgson's squad are actually and properly crocked. Including Wayne Rooney.
Rooney hasn't played a game of football since Manchester United's visit to Sunderland in the middle of February, a 2-1 loss in which he perhaps unwisely played through pain. That injury curtailed his best goal-scoring form of the season: he'd scored seven in the previous eight games. It led, via happenstance and a tweak to the hamstring of Anthony Martial, to the promotion of Marcus Rashford to United's first team, which has gone quite well. And it has also led to an intriguing pair of questions for Hodgson and England: first, what does an England team without Wayne Rooney look like? And second, might it actually look better?
First things first. Since the 2014 World Cup campaign sputtered to a halt, Rooney, in his role as captain and first-choice striker, has started all but three of England's games. During those rare, enforced absences, Harry Kane has led the line in his place, generally with support from two wider attacking players: Raheem Sterling and Theo Walcott against Estonia, Jamie Vardy and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain against Lithuania, and Sterling and Adam Lallana against Spain. (Kane and Rooney also started together on one occasion, a 1-1 draw with Italy.)
Given that Kane's goal-scoring form has only improved as the season has gone on, and that Hodgson has generally persisted with mild variations on 4-3-3, we can probably assume that we'll see something similar this week: Kane through the middle, flanked by Danny Welbeck and — given in the absence of Sterling through injury and Walcott's shaky form — probably Daniel Sturridge. Other options include a front two of Kane and Vardy, though given the former has done most of his work this season as a lone striker, it would seem a little counter-intuitive to mess about with that.
The second question is harder to answer, and the upcoming friendlies may not be that much help. The Rooneyness or otherwise of England probably won't make a difference against the World Cup holders or the simmering mess that is this particular edition of the Netherlands; the likely results, a loss and a win, may not tell us all that much. But there's no comparison on the basis of their two seasons: Kane has a significant edge on Rooney both in terms of raw numbers, 24 goals to 14 across all competitions, and in the general tenor and effectiveness of his performances. There may not be any truth in those "Mourinho wants Kane at United" stories, but there's an awful lot of logic.
Kane's possible inclusion also has implications for the rest of the starting XI. His combination with Dele Alli has been both joyous and productive all season: Alli to Kane, Kane to goal has happened seven times this season, more than any other combination across Europe's top five leagues. Stick Alli's midfield partner Eric Dier in there too, perhaps along with Kyle Walker and Danny Rose at fullback, and all of a sudden half the England team have spent all season playing — and playing well — alongside one another. Nobody's going to be mistaking this Tottenham side for Bayern Munich or Barcelona, the club sides that provided the spine of the last two World Cup winners, but familiarity and practised coherence are so often missing from international teams that it would seem a shame to waste it when it's available.
The overriding sense is that this won't make much difference to Hodgson's thinking, at least at first. England's manager may have said a few days ago that Rooney isn't guaranteed a starting place, but nobody really believed him. Still, Manchester United have at most 11 games left this season: eight in the league, an FA Cup quarterfinal replay and then a possible semifinal and final after that. England have three friendlies before their first game against Russia. We can probably be sure that both Louis van Gaal and Hodgson will give their captain as much game time as possible across those fixtures, but at this stage in his career Rooney takes a long time to spin back up to whatever passes for his best form. And while his absence hasn't necessarily made Manchester United better as a team, it's certainly made their attack look a lot more dynamic.
So barring something spectacular, hilarious, or both, Rooney will go into the Euros on the back of an odd, patchy season. He may well have a relatively recent injury still lingering in his legs. Both Kane and Vardy are likely to finish ahead of him in the goal-scoring charts and one or the other will probably end up with a title-winner's medal as well. And outside of the strikers position, there are younger, fitter, faster and probably just straight-up better options in all the other positions he might conceivably play.
Except captain, for whatever that's worth. There were rumours that Rooney was going to make a surprise return to United's squad for the derby last Sunday; in the end, it turned out that he was in the dressing room to talk to the players. That "pre-match rallying cry" seemed to work, and while Rooney's press conferences and postmatch interviews don't exactly scream 'orator,' it's snobbery of an insidious kind to assume that he, a well-respected and experienced footballer, doesn't know how to talk to a dressing room of footballers about football. Hodgson's squad is shaping up to be a curious thing, very callow in some respects, and if there's ever any value in having experience around, then Rooney's going to be shouldering a lot of that work.
If we assume that Hodgson isn't going to change his tactics or drop his captain — both seem reasonable — then the above, and the upcoming friendlies, will only become relevant if and when the tournament starts to change character. If England, with Rooney on the field and Kane and Vardy, start poorly, or if somebody puts together some sparkling substitute appearances. Or if England, once they start to run into stronger teams, feel the need to change the way they play, by packing the midfield or playing the quickest team possible. Perhaps that's the real hook of these upcoming friendlies. We're about to have a sneak preview into what might happen if, or possibly when, Plan A falls apart.