On the one hand, the fact Manchester United, along with Tottenham, were the most represented club in the current England squad can be interpreted as the Red Devils’ situation not being as bad as some might make out. On the other, one could say, in this particular case, club and country are adrift in the same rudderless boat. Of course, England have brought just the one half-century-old trophy aboard with their baggage, while United are lugging around nearly thirty from the more recent Sir Alex Ferguson era. The latter sounds better, but in reality it’s an awful lot of ballast to carry on board when you’re worried about sinking.
Of the quartet who normally dress in Mancunian red, only Chris Smalling played no part in the matches versus Malta and Slovenia. Gareth Southgate apparently prefers Gary Cahill and John Stones’ passing abilities to Smalling’s greater physicality. Not so odd, considering the FA is starving for a midfielder who understands the importance of distribution and game management.
Jesse Lingard, for instance, played both matches in their entirety. He, like so many attacking players available to the Three Lions, specializes in running quickly with the ball at his feet rather than involving others. With no offense intended, he was probably the worst at it in the squad, his dogged scrappiness in winning back possession more likely earning him the nod over Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Yes, Lingard has scored two very important goals for United. It would be much more to his credit, however, were they punctuating a handful of other less important strikes, and perhaps a few more goals created. Instead, in keeping with this column’s theme, they’re adrift, months apart, in a sea of unfulfilled opportunities.
No English player with passing skills listed foremost on his CV was selected by Southgate, largely because none exist, a brittle Jack Wilshere being the lone possible exception. Unfortunately, rather than being in the boat with club and country, Unhappy Jack is floating along with his butt in a red and white life ring, trying to buoy his confidence by plotting a personal renaissance at Bournemouth. Re-inserting himself into the Arsenal XI will be quite the challenge with playmakers such as Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla, and, when healthy himself, Aaron Ramsey having established themselves in Arsene Wenger’s pecking order.
Marcus Rashford, in the meantime, must be content with coming on after the one of the more experienced mavericks, during this international break either Daniel Sturridge or Theo Walcott, have run themselves into enough double and triple teams to have exhausted their physical reserves. With Zlatan Ibrahimović providing an exemplary model for hold-up play, and clever passing to send teammates in free on goal at Old Trafford, perhaps the youngster will have learned to do more than take defenders on alone when his time to start matches for England arrives, as it surely will.
Of course, no United player seems so lost at sea at the moment as Wayne Rooney, caught in a desperate strait between not being as terrible as certain people would have you believe but incapable of returning to what he once was. Interim England boss Southgate has followed José Mourinho’s example by employing Wazza as a substitute. Although coming close, the strategy hasn’t paid the dividends for the somewhat Holmesian-looking former Palace, Villa, and Boro player that it has for the more Moriartish Portuguese. It’s true Rooney’s involvement in the last two goals United scored to rescue results after his appearance was largely accomplished without his knowledge. One glancing off his knee to a teammate, the other only momentarily disturbing the sleep of the hairs on his big toe before likewise finding deliverance elsewhere. Still, his lack of pace and timing, not to mention his less than pinpoint passing, have somehow combined to form an unpredictability which has thrown opposing defenders into a quandary. Bad, if you will, is the new good.
For both United and England, players, who before the captain’s arrival, were trying to do it all on their own, were suddenly eager to get the ball to their leader, altering the attacking dynamic. Rooney, in turn, was showing up in dangerous positions where the opportunity to capitalize on uncertainty existed. In Ljubljana, that position was at the top of the box to Slovenia keeper Jan Oblak’s left, where Rooney loosed a curling volley which brought to mind the immortal words of baseball announcer/comedic actor, Bob Eucker.
To be fair, Rooney’s effort was much closer than that of Charlie Sheen’s pre-bespectacled Rick Vaughn. Yet, the Scouser somehow has tens of thousands of Randy Quaids screaming about how much he makes their butts sting. To be less popular than a coked-out B-list actor who admittedly had sex with numerous women while not disclosing he was HIV-positive apparently takes very little effort. Go figure.
At any rate, what becomes of these four United players’ divergent England careers, like the course the lost ship more familiarly known as the FA will choose to take in order to reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia, is anyone’s guess.