Football: Brave new world sees England making no forward progress

England 0 Half-time: 0-0 Netherlands 0 Att: 40,705
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IT WAS billed as the brave new world of 4-3-3, but so rarely has a Sven Goran Eriksson formation failed so badly, so emphatically at the first attempt. It was a system that began by making a winger of Wayne Rooney, but it finished by reducing Villa Park to a quiet chamber lost in disbelieving contemplation of an England friendly performance that degenerated like few others in the Swede's four years in charge.

After the scope of their defeat to Spain in the Bernabeu in November, this was an England performance that needed to convince us that gathering the squad together in February, as the domestic season shifts up a gear, still had relevance and value. For too long last night, however, we watched 11 international footballers struggle to interpret a formation that, for all their familiarity with it, might as well have been presented to them in a sealed envelope as they left the changing-rooms.

Eriksson's defence of playing Rooney on the left, Shaun Wright-Phillips on the right and a tight midfield trio of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard was that it presented him with another option. The flat midfield four, the diamond formation and now the 4-3-3 - they all have their place in the files of the England coach, but what was required last night was something more than an experiment. Against a Netherlands team missing at least five first-choice players, England barely made a dent.

Rooney was removed after the hour without ever getting a chance to unload one of the shots that made him such an absorbing, unstoppable destroyer of opposition defences in Euro 2004. It was not hard to see, as he dropped deeper than ever before for possession, or loitered uncertainly around the left wing, that this was not a night he enjoyed. Of Wright-Phillips we saw glimpses of the potential he possesses, but an early miss from point-blank range seemed to have chewed at his confidence.

In their black and white halved shirts - in support of Thierry Henry's anti-racism campaign - this was not a daunting Dutch side. Indeed, Marco van Basten, the Netherlands coach, had given every impression that he had expected this to be the end of his team's six-game winning streak.

Beckham barely strayed from a tight sphere of influence in the centre of midfield and, as the main artery of supply between defence and midfield, dropped deeper than ever before. It was a role he had taken to accommodate Wright-Phillips further out right and, for a while at least, the sense of occasion threatened to overpower the Manchester City winger.

Whatever he goes on to achieve, the 23-year-old will struggle to erase from his memory the two chances that fell to him in the game's early stages. On 14 minutes, Ashley Cole fed a pass into Rooney on the edge of the area and his flick was gathered in by Beckham as he surged into the left channel of the area. The ball was cut back to Wright-Phillips, who clipped a shot from close range wide.

The second was worse, a pass inside Giovanni van Bronckhorst from Beckham that Gary Neville slipped back to the feet of Wright-Phillips. This is a winger of unbounded talent, and he has scored an England goal already, but, presented with a Dutch defence that had fallen apart, the ball spun lamely off his right foot and did not even trouble Edwin van der Sar.

It had also been Wright-Phillips who was also at fault when the Dutch broke out on 10 minutes. After a misunderstanding with Rooney, a misplaced pass by the winger fell to Romeo Castelen, an impressive right midfielder who fed the ball to Dirk Kuijt. His shot beat Paul Robinson and cannoned off the post.

By the end of the first half, Wright-Phillips had recovered some of the conviction to run at defenders that had earned him his place in the team and pushed his side forward with surging run past Van Bronckhorst. Later he twisted inside Jan Kromkamp's challenge, but by then the Villa Park crowd quietened to a murmur and it began to dawn that the promise of a new formation was expiring fast.

Sir Alex Ferguson's need remains greater than England's, and Rooney trudged to the bench on 61 minutes, along with Wright-Phillips, none the wiser, it seemed, of the nature of the role he had been asked to perform. With the two debutants, Stewart Downing and Andy Johnson on, it felt like the right moment to abandon 4-3-3 and return to a midfield four that, at the very least, offered the security of familiarity.

Still Eriksson persisted with 4-3-3. Johnson was dispatched to the right wing for toil that will have hardly have fulfilled his hopes for the most significant night of his football career. On the left, Downing found himself in familiar territory but could not locate the space to run at the Dutch defence.

Johnson finished the game out on the right, marooned. It was hard not to feel sympathy for a player shoehorned into an unfamiliar role in a failing formation. Whether he returns to the England team will have much to do with the fitness of his striking peers. Whether we see 4-3-3 again will be a monumental test of Eriksson's faith.

ENGLAND (4-3-3): Robinson (Tottenham Hotspur); G Neville (Manchester Utd), Brown (Manchester Utd), Carragher (Liverpool), A Cole (Arsenal); Beckham (Real Madrid), Gerrard (Liv

erpool), Lampard (Chelsea); Wright-Phillips (Manchester City), Owen (Real Madrid), Rooney (Manchester Utd). Substitutes: Hargreaves (Bayern Munich) for Lampard, h-t; Downing (Middlesbrough) for Wright-Phillips, 61; A Johnson (Crystal Palace) for Rooney, 61; Dyer (Newcastle United) for Beckham, 82; Jenas (Newcastle United) for Gerrard, 82.

NETHERLANDS (4-3-3): Van der Sar (Fulham); Kromkamp (AZ Alkmaar), Boulahrouz (Hamburg), Mathijsen (AZ Alkmaar), Van Bronckhorst (Barcelona); Van der Vaart (Ajax), Heitinga (Ajax), Landzaat (AZ Alkmaar); Castelen (Feytquenoord), Kuijt (Feyernoord), Makaay (Bayern Munich). Substitutes: Van Bommel (PSV Eindhoven) for Heitinga, 61; Yildirim (Heerenveen) for Castelen, 63.

Referee: P Frojdfeldt (Sweden).