Football: Swedes expose tactical failings

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The Independent Online
England 0 Sweden 0

THE RESERVATIONS about Kevin Keegan's tactical acumen, which had been suspended for the first two matches of his reign, were released en masse at Wembley on Saturday as England showed a naivety about the international game that was both embarrassing and worrying.

Keegan's England were tactically inflexible, bereft of imagination and short of cohesion. Combined with their physical excesses and mental tiredness, they would have lost comfortably had Sweden possessed either the wit or the desire to seize the game as they should.

Instead England, reduced to 10 men for the third time in six competitive matches, muddled their way to the draw which keeps them in the hunt for a Euro 2000 play-off place. It is still possible that draws in Bulgaria, on Wednesday, and Poland, in October, would be enough, assuming victory over Luxembourg, to send them through. The reality is that only by avoiding defeat in Bulgaria, and winning in Poland, can they control their own destiny.

Bulgaria, who lost 2-0 in Warsaw on Friday, are in a mess but could still be tricky opposition. They were good enough to gain a comfortable draw at Wembley in October and will be lifted by the probability that the match will serve as a farewell to their greatest player, Hristo Stoichkov.

But, as Keegan would say, never mind Bulgaria, what about England? They, too, are in something of a mess with Paul Scholes suspended and David Beckham and Martin Keown joining a list of injured or unavailable players that includes Michael Owen, Gary Neville, Tony Adams, Darren Anderton and Steve McManaman.

Keegan has promoted Kieron Dyer and Danny Mills from the Under-21 squad but they are unlikely to increase his options for the starting XI. With the left flank continuing to be his main problem he may well be hoping Graeme Le Saux recovers from the virus which ended his match prematurely on Saturday to partner Michael Gray on that side. An alternative is to switch to three centre-backs.

Ray Parlour is the probable replacement for Beckham while, surely, Teddy Sheringham will now be recalled. It was the sight of Robbie Fowler, rather than Sheringham, preparing to replace the out-of-form Andy Cole which was the final straw for many observers on Saturday.

In the event Beckham's hamstring went, precipitating the introduction of Parlour, but the original choice was perplexing. England's problem was their inability to make chances on the ground and take them in the air, both areas which Sheringham is better equipped to solve than Fowler. Pressed, the best reason Keegan could offer for the planned substitution was that Fowler was left-footed and "we didn't have many left-footers out there".

That was Mensa-level strategy compared with the tactical advice Keegan offered at half-time. "I said to them: `Come on, we can play a lot better than that, we can't play much worse, we can pass it better, we can move better, we can take a bit more responsibility'. I didn't change anything. There was nothing to change because we hadn't done anything."

Surely someone in his four-man coaching staff might have offered a reason for this: that Tim Sherwood was miscast on left midfield; that, with two up, Scholes pushing on and David Batty sitting deep, there was a huge gap between the forwards and defence which meant the second ball - the one which followed the ritual of a Swedish head clearing an English cross - was always picked up by the opposition. Someone should also have realised that if England continued to play as if in a Sam Peckinpah movie, someone would get sent off.

Scholes, who could have been dismissed in the first minute for a horrific lunge at Hakan Mild, proved the fall guy, twice being booked for late tackles on Stefan Schwarz. Beckham, for dissent, Shearer, for elbowing Patrik Andersson in the windpipe (he was booked), and Batty and Phil Neville for consistent fouling, could also have gone. Keegan not only said nothing to calm them down at half-time but excused Scholes as "only being guilty of wanting to win a game". He added: "I want players to be committed for England, to really care. I'm not going to turn around and say he shouldn't have done it."

Keegan has matured as a manager since starting out at Newcastle but the learning curve has now got much steeper. At present there are worrying echoes of Ally McLeod's ill-fated "remember Bannockburn" management style.

The early moments of Saturday's match were, alternately, bright and bloody but, once English enthusiasm had worn off, Sweden looked much better organised. With Schwarz creating the platform Fredrik Ljungberg, whose two matches against England have been far better than anything he has produced for Arsenal, caused problems, notably with a cross which Henrik Larsson, stealing ahead of Le Saux, should have headed in.

Shortly before the interval, from a half-cleared Beckham cross, Shearer put England's best chance over. Any optimism that engendered evaporated six minutes after the players returned as Scholes became the first England international to be dismissed at Wembley. After having four players sent off in 126 years, England have lost three in 12 months.

On none of these occasions have they gone on to win and, though Sherwood glanced a Neville cross over after 62 minutes, they never looked like doing so on Saturday. Instead they were grateful Kennet Andersson missed a free header as Sol Campbell was caught ball-watching and David Seaman belatedly scrambled a Ljungberg free-kick over.

There were boos at the end, another first for Keegan, who lamented, as Howard Wilkinson and Glenn Hoddle had previously done this season, "we didn't pass it well enough".

If there is not a vast improvement in Sofia some international careers may be over before the year is out. With Paul Gascoigne seemingly finished at this level we await the arrival of Joe Cole, a spectator on Saturday but, assuming he starts the season in the West Ham side, a likely-to-possible participant by Christmas. He may not be 18 until November but the need for invention around the box is that desperate.

ENGLAND (4-3-1-2): Seaman (Arsenal); P Neville (Man Utd), Keown (Arsenal), Campbell (Tottenham), Le Saux (Chelsea); Beckham (Manchester Utd), Batty (Leeds), Sherwood (Tottenham); Scholes; Cole (both Manchester Utd), Shearer (Newcastle). Substitutes: Ferdinand (West Ham) for Keown, 34; Gray (Sunderland) for Le Saux, h-t; Parlour (Arsenal) for Beckham, 75.

SWEDEN (4-4-2): Hedman (Coventry); Nilsson (Helsingborg), P Andersson (Borussia Monchengladbach), Bjorklund (Valencia), Kaamark (Leicester); Mild (IFK Gothenburg), Schwarz (Valencia), Mjallby (Celtic), Ljungberg (Arsenal); K Andersson (Bologna), Larsson (Celtic). Substitutes: Alexandersson (Sheffield Wednesday) for Mild, 6; Svensson (Viking Stavanger) for Larsson, 69; D Andersson (Bari) for Mjallby, 82.

Referee: J Garcia Aranda (Spain).

Bookings: England: Scholes, Cole, Batty, Shearer. Sweden: Hedman, Schwarz, K Andersson. Sending off: England: Scholes.

Man of the match: Schwarz.

Attendance: 75,824.