A victory for keep-ball and keep-small

Defoe's deeds help to bring a fresh perspective as England begin to learn the value of possession
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The Independent Online

One undeniable benefit of the England players' refusal to share their thoughts on Wednesday's 2-1 victory in Poland with reporters was the latter's unusually speedy return to the media hotel after the game.

One undeniable benefit of the England players' refusal to share their thoughts on Wednesday's 2-1 victory in Poland with reporters was the latter's unusually speedy return to the media hotel after the game. Those who switched on their televisions before repairing to the bar were thus able to enjoy a series of clips from the evening's World Cup qualifying games that showed Sven Goran Eriksson's supposed crisis in a different light.

Here were France, following their goalless draw against Israel by staggering to victory over the Faroe Islands by two goals to nil, the second of which should have been disallowed for offside. Then came Italy, scraping by 1-0 in Moldova; next, Spain being held by Bosnia-Herzogovina; and Greece, the lauded new European champions, managing a goalless draw at home to Turkey that gave them one point from the opening two games. Who, after that lot, was prepared to sneer at England's win and draw from two of the potentially trickier away games in Group Six, which, but for a goalkeeping howler in Vienna last Saturday, would have yielded maximum points?

It is admittedly misleading to say, as Eriksson does from time to time, that there are no easy games at international level these days. He will have noticed that his native country did not have too much trouble in Malta last Saturday before winning 7-0; and that Slovakia managed to dispatch Liechtenstein by the same score, finding them less stubborn opposition than England did at Old Trafford a year ago. Nor were England's performances over the past week world-class; but the brutal truth is that England do not do world-class, and essentially never have. Liverpool's Steven Gerrard had it right when he agreed with a prompt in Vienna that the English are a quarter-final team and added: "We've got a bit of work to do to get to the next level."

The most cursory historical analysis shows that to have been the case since the country first deigned to take part in intercontinental competition. In the first four World Cups, the last eight was reached twice, and ended by superior South American opposition. It is arguable that a similar fate could have followed despite home advantage in 1966, when the referee sent off Argentina's best player because of "the look on his face".

There have been further quarter-final defeats in 1970, 1982 (under a different format), 1986 and 2002, just as there was at Euro 2004. So apart from the "home" tournaments of '66 and '96, England's only journeys beyond the last eight have been winning one home-and-away knockout round in the 1968 European Nations' Cup and then losing the 1990 World Cup semi-final on penalties.

Eriksson's squads have therefore twice made par - nothing more and, please note, nothing less - his most significant achievement having been to reach the final stages of the 2002 World Cup after taking over a demoralised team, who had surrendered five of the first six points available. A similar return at the start of the current campaign would have had most critics calling for someone else to pull off the same trick rather than allowing the Swede the opportunity to repeat it. David James's gaffe during what the head coach called "a sloppy 15 minutes" in Austria raised that possibility, but Eriksson's unexpected ruthlessness in dumping the goalkeeper and Alan Smith helped pave the way for a more assured performance in Poland.

Jermain Defoe's first international goal confirmed that the prowess as a natural scorer seen throughout his career transfers well to the highest level. Would that he had been given the chance to prove it before Euro 2004 and subsequently been taken to Portugal. That would also have answered the question put to Eriksson after last month's 3-0 victory over Ukraine about whether two strikers as vertically challenged as Defoe and Michael Owen can operate in tandem. "If you can keep the ball on the ground, why not?" he replied on that occasion. "You can't put up long balls and ask them to win against two big centre- halves, but when we control the ball and play it in to them, they are very good."

With one or two exceptions - Paul Robinson constantly launched huge clearances upfield, asking the little men to indulge in fight-ball - the team seem to have got that message, and at times in the past week managed some proper passing. Eriksson and his coaching team have clearly managed to put over the most important lesson from Euro 2004, namely the necessity of keeping possession more efficiently.

In terms of personnel there is also a pleasing choice, with Defoe now learning to play alongside Owen, and a certain Wayne Rooney, who stands only an outside chance of being fit for the next double-header in mid-October, at home to Wales and away to Azerbaijan. "If Rooney is back then, for sure, it will give me problems," Eriksson said. "It's difficult or almost impossible to play all three of them from the start. But that's a good problem, as it will be if Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell and Jonathan Woodgate are back. Is Michael Owen under threat? He's scored 27 goals in 63 games, it must be the best for many years. So we'll see. First of all, Wayne Rooney has to be fit to start. But I like dilemmas like that."

The dilemma of David Beckham's indifferent form is one he relishes a little less. In fact he appears to be in denial about it: "I don't agree to those who say that David Beckham should be dropped. Playing today and on Saturday as he did, who should do that job better than him? I don't think we could find one. He's doing a lot of good things for us. I'm not worried at all about David Beckham."

No great encouragement for Shaun Wright-Phillips, who did not make the pitch at any stage of the two games, let alone Joe Cole, who was summoned for six minutes in Vienna, then demoted from the dug-out in Katowice. He now finds himself even further down the queue, Eriksson preferring to use one Chelsea player (Wayne Bridge) out of position rather than trust the one who thought his time and role had come at last.

After all the talk of drama and crisis, then, a satisfactory start marred only by one goalkeeping error and, on Wednesday, the ugly head of hooliganism being raised briefly above the parapet. Polish provocation or not, the Football Association are lucky that Fifa's head of security at the game was an Englishman prepared to take a tolerant view of the seat-throwing and play it down in his official report.

Meanwhile, another quarter-final remains on the cards in 21 months' time. You read it here first.

Spoilt for choice: take your partners

Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney
First-choice pair at Euro 2004, Rooney's emergence as a potentially world-class striker deflecting attention from some of Owen's initially indifferent displays. Partnership temporarily ended by Rooney breaking foot after 25 minutes of quarter-final.

Owen and Jermain Defoe
Worked well in second half against Ukraine last month and in Poland, as long as team-mates remembered to keep the ball on the ground. Lacks physical presence without the stronger Rooney, who is also happier than this pair at dropping just behind the main striker to collect the ball or create extra space.

Defoe and Rooney
Following confirmation of Defoe's international class, the prospect of England without Owen is now far from unthinkable. If he is unavailable or fails to settle or play often at Real Madrid, this pair, who had 50 minutes together in Sweden last season, would be fine.

Alan Smith and Rooney
With so little time for players to work together at international level, there are benefits to club combinations, and this would be one to consider long-term. It would certainly make life physically uncomfortable for defenders. But both need to find their feet, and a place, at Old Trafford.

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