GARETH SOUTHGATE insists Wayne Rooney is in a much better state of mind than a month ago when the interim chief took the bold decision to drop England’s record goalscorer.
The Manchester United striker will return to the starting XI tonight as captain as the Three Lions go head-to-head with Scotland in a competitive fixture for the first time in 17 years.
Where Rooney will start remains under wraps, Southgate yesterday refusing to confirm if the 31-year-old will begin up front or in midfield after revealing Harry Kane was available despite earlier concerns over his fitness.
But the fact that Rooney has been recalled after starting the goalless draw with Slovenia on the bench is, Southgate maintains, a reflection of a marked improvement in his form at Old Trafford.
“Game time, as much as anything,” said Southgate when asked about what has changed for Rooney since the last round of World Cup qualifiers. “He wasn’t in a flow of playing. He has had more matches since. He had two 90 minutes last week, scored and had two assists.
“To my mind, even in his training, he looks freer in his mind. That is an important place to be in order to perform. I think he will play well. He doesn’t have anything to prove to me.
“The whole basis of our conversation (about being dropped) wasn’t about my belief in him as a player. I made a decision that I thought was right for that game. He is a big-game player with big-match experience. I think a night like this will be perfect for him.”
In last Sunday’s 3-1 win for Manchester United at Swansea City, Rooney looked much more like the player that a little over a year ago eclipsed Sir Bobby Charlton’s record of 49 goals for England.
He provided two assists as Zlatan Ibrahimovic broke his two-month scoring drought in the Premier League with the Red Devils sweeping aside the Swans in a devastating first-half display at the Liberty Stadium.
“Class is permanent, isn’t it?” added Southgate when pressed on Rooney’s display in south Wales. “We all have moments as players where you have runs of games. Part of being a player is grinding out the difficult moments.
“There are matches and periods where you know you are not at your best. They are the games you have to grind out and play your part for the team then there are other games where things are happening more naturally. To me, he looks like he is just heading into that period. That is great for us.”
Rooney’s return to form is timely, considering how poorly England played last month in the 2-0 home win over Malta and then their disappointing stalemate in Ljubljana.
“I think the guys have a bit more clarity on what we want to do with the ball,” added Southgate about what improvements he wants to see against Scotland.
“We have talked about our goalscoring, but I think there is good reason for that.
“We have got to show more patience in our build-up play. But also, I think when the opportunity is there to slide people in and play forward we have got to take it. We can’t just be a team that wants to keep the ball for the sake of it. We have got to be progressive.
“I also have to say that it will have been very difficult for them with three coaches in the last three matches, all with a different idea of how they want to play. I have got to be realistic about how they take that on board.
“But I sense there is more clarity this week from the training and the discussion that we have had.”