As nation loses faith in Eriksson, can the galacticos rescue his reputation?

Sven's influence over his men in terminal decline writes Nick Townsend
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The Independent Football

Michael Owen passed by him, yet so oblivious was the England coach that he was barely aware of one of his key players. Eriksson raised his hand in acknow-ledgement, but by then the striker was already long gone. Witnessing Eriksson's demeanour, it recalled one of those infuriating luminous "active" touchline adverts in use that night (so distracting to spectators, and presumably to players, too), promoting George A Rom- ero's film Land of the Dead. As the coach depar-ted the pitch, there was a decidedly zombie-like look about him.

Of rather greater concern is that he will lead England towards their still-probable destiny of next year's World Cup finals like one of the undead; unwanted and unloved by many, except by a select fraternity of international players and a Football Association hierarchy, although one suspects even the blessing of those two groups is becoming ever more tenuous.

"You forgive and move on." Not the FA's reaction to their coach's position in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday's defeat by Northern Ireland, but Nancy Dell'Olio's reaction to her partner's peccadillos, although it could have been, such has been the FA's public preparedness to back "the best man for the job", as their chief executive, Brian Barwick, injudiciously expressed it, albeit just before the Denmark débâcle. Both Ms Dell'Olio and the FA must be questioning their judgement following recent events. The former has her own reasons for steadfastness; where Barwick and Co are concerned, the retention by Eriksson of his lucrative seat is partly the result of prudence, part pragmatism.

On the assumption that England will account for Austria and then overcome Poland in the final qualifier, the expectation of the FA suits is that the momen-tum will carry the squad through to a productive finals. From a balance-sheet perspective, qualification would produce an income of anything up to £100 million for the FA; Eriksson's dismissal now would mean putting a match to much of that with a costly pay-off, with all the added disruption the head-hunting of a new coach would produce.

And just who might that be, anyway, from an English list of Sam Allardyce, Alan Curbishley, Steve McClaren, Steve Bruce, Peter Taylor and Bryan Robson which scarcely engenders great confidence, and a highly rated "foreign" list of Arsène Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson, Guus Hiddink and Martin O'Neill, who would require, for different reasons, rather more persuading than the FA could probably muster.

If anyone is awaiting magnanimous gestures, they will be frustrated. Eriksson has already demonstrated himself a master of self-preservation. Prick him and he does not bleed. Incite him to injudicious responses and he reminds you of one of those sea anemones who withdraw into themselves when a predator approaches.

For the moment the FA will persist with the Swede, who made a less than convincing attempt to offer mitigation for himself, and England. "I know that this is a good team," he reflected in Belfast late on Wednesday. "We lost something today, and we struggled in Wales and still won. But we will qualify, and then we will see what we will do. We have played very good football in many, many games, with more or less the same players. But we started [the season] struggling, and of course, the result tonight is very bad. My concern now is to get them [the players] fit in soul, brain and body for the next two games."

An intriguing use of words that, though the desperate man will seize any branch, however flimsy. Essentially, Eriksson's explanation was that two crucial players, Owen (through lack of matches) and Gerrard (through injury), were not totally fit, and a certain lack of brainpower and passion was responsible for a lamentable second half. "That's what I'm, er, very sorry about," said the coach. "That we lost our patience, and we lost the spirit."

In that one phrase, he indicts himself as a man whose influence over his players, both tactically and in the ability to stimulate them has been seriously diminished. Terminally? You suspect so. Respect for coaches is grudgingly earned but easily discarded by players once results do not match expectation. Who, now, has any faith that Eriksson can induce the level of performance required against Brazil, Argentina, Italy, whoever, when all the circumstantial evidence has been that his authority within the dressing room has diminished?

Like a seedy film director confronted by a coquettish actress, Eriksson appears to have pandered to his captain, David Beckham, and yielded to the Real Madrid midfielder's desire to be a distributor in the manner of a Joe Montana, instead of insisting that he should retain the wide receiver role in which he can excel. A consequence was Wayne Rooney being largely confined, impotently so, on the flank, although in truth he did exercise a self-proclaimed right to roam.

True, the absences of Gary Neville and John Terry were significant, as much for their character as their playing repertoire; yet that fact notwithstanding, this was as deplorable a display, in the context of the opposition, as we have witnessed from England for many years. This was not simply a contest in which the cannons were all primed but the shot was damp. Here, the suspicion was that there was no one actually at the man o'war's helm.

And this in the year commemorating the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar. How England need an Horatio Nelson. The problem is that the only similarity Eriksson shares with that national hero is the ability to turn a blind eye, principally to his own, and England's, deficiencies.

If England's anchor does not hold, the manager may be cast adrift

By Steve Tongue

"Will your anchor hold in the storm of life?" asks the old Methodist hymn. Not if it's David Beckham playing there, has to be the reply from the massed congregations of Wales and Northern Ireland on the evidence of the past nine days.

That evidence was already strong enough after England gained a laboured victory in Cardiff by one deflected goal to nil last weekend, the principal point being that Beckham would be exposed by a better-resourced attacking force. What was not expected was that such a body would be encountered last Wednesday night at Windsor Park.

But, astonishingly, it was, and so for the first time anywhere in international football for nine years, a gap of more than 100 places in the Fifa world rankings was overturned. This was not quite what the Football Association had in mind when appointing Sven Goran Eriksson to make history. Nor, of course, was it what the Swede intended when coming up with the idea of integrating his captain and Shaun Wright-Phillips into the same side without dropping Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard or Joe Cole.

Unfortunately, on a day when Beckham was found wanting as Northern Ireland's Steven Davis moved threateningly into the space the anchorman needed to be guarding, free to feed the ball forward for David Healy's fine strike, so Lampard (who could also have cut off the move at source) and Gerrard were doing nothing to justify their reputations as "two of the best midfield players in the world" (Eriksson); and neither Cole in Cardiff nor Wright-Phillips in Belfast proved they were the wide players to provide the necessary penetration or service.

As the more natural winger, the latter deserves another chance and ought to get it even when Eriksson reverts, as he now should, to the basic 4-4-2 deployment that has been his natural instinct through most of a coaching career stretching to almost two decades - as well as the system with which a majority of English players seem most comfortable. The head coach has two home games to save his job and salvage his reputation, the first against a team already eliminated and the second against a team already qualified.

For Austria's visit to Old Trafford on 8 October, there is the additional complication of which two strikers to play; Wayne Rooney, having proved by default that he is much better employed dropping off the front man rather than out wide - at least in an England team who are not as naturally gung-ho as Manchester United - is suspended as a result of his prolonged immaturity, so the realistic choice is either another chance for the diddymen, Michael Owen and Jermain Defoe, who have never quite gelled before, or pitching in a physically stronger striker such as Peter Crouch, Emile Heskey, Darren Bent or Andy Johnson.

The key question, however, in both the short- and middle-term, is yet again how the midfield four are arranged, a problem that arises whenever, as now, Eriksson's chosen quartet are all attacking players. That was the case at Euro 2004, when the favoured four were Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard and Paul Scholes. Nicky Butt, who would have offered better balance as an essentially defensive operator, had damaged knee ligaments and the players did not want the diamond shape that Eriksson apparently favoured - partly because none of them was suited to the anchor role.

Gerrard and Lampard could not hold the centre at crucial periods against the better opposition (France and Portugal) and Scholes, as well as hating the heat, did not enjoy being pushed out wide. He retired from international football after the tournament, which allowed Butt to reclaim a place last autumn before suffering a loss of form and another injury before the turn of the year.

After unsuccessfully trying 4-3-3 in a dismal goalless friendly against Holland with exactly the same six front-players as in Belfast last Wednesday (if it was such a mess at Villa Park, why use it again?), Eriksson turned to Joe Cole, having a purple patch for Chelsea, who seized his chance and stayed in for the next six games, up to and including Cardiff.

Cole, however, is not Butt. Neither are Michael Carrick or Jermaine Jenas, the central pairing tried in the United States. So since the start of 2005 there has been no specialist protection in front of the defence. At their clubs, Lampard and Gerrard have the peerless Claude Mak-elele and the doughty Dietmar Hamann to do the job, just as Scholes at Manchester United has Roy Keane. Interestingly, two of the most exciting teams around, Arsenal and Brazil, use two sitting players there, giving free rein to their full-backs, wide men and strikers to charge forward.

Eriksson's disingenuous thoughts in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday's débâcle were: "Personally, I don't think it depends on the system. Absolutely not. Today, I think more or less all the players played in the position they normally play for their clubs. But we will qualify and then we will see what we will do... but that's another story."

Beckham, while loyally sticking by the man who has stuck by him, was noticeably less confident about the new system. "It's been a tough few weeks for him as a manager, but we believe as a team he's the right person for the job," he said. "He definitely showed emotion after the game, he had to, and the players want to see that sometimes. We want people to know that when we lose it hurts us as much as everybody watching. We've tried a different system, whether people think it's worked or not worked... Up against certain teams it might be better, against others it might be worse.

"We have to have different plans and hopefully we've got that, but I'm not a manager so I wouldn't like to have to choose. I was asked a question by Garth Crooks [of the BBC] about whether we were playing a formation that suits me but doesn't suit the team. I don't know, I don't know. It's down to the manager now to look at it and see what he wants to do."

Will your anchor hold? If it does not at Old Trafford next month, England's first foreign manager will have to be cast adrift.


David Beckham

With his excellent vision, passing and crossing ability, plus an underrated capacity for hard work, it is perfectly possible for the captain to find a more central role, but not as the anchorman. It would have to be alongside an orthodox, hard-tackling defender. Better to let him fight for his place on the right with Shaun Wright-Phillips, or shift the Manchester City man to the left.

Michael Carrick

Almost four years without an international appearance, from August 2001 until the US trip last May, represents an awful waste of talent and opportunity. In old-fashioned terms, Carrick is an inside-forward rather than a wing-half, more effective as a passer than a tackler; not quite what is needed. But an elegant understudy for Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

Owen Hargreaves

After 29 caps, the Bayern Munich man's worth as an international is still unknown, mainly because so many have been as a substitute in the last 15 minutes. Starting the 2002 World Cup as first choice, he quickly lost out to Nicky Butt because of injury. Needs a proper chance to convince.

Phil Neville

Versatility keeps the younger Neville in the squad, his reputation in this position resting on one memorable club performance against Patrick Vieira at Old Trafford. More regular appearances there for Everton will help his case, but he is probably of most use as understudy to his brother Gary at right-back.

Scott Parker

Whatever happened to the likely lad? Answer: He became, like Glen Johnson, a good example of joining Chelsea and not playing enough. Unlike Johnson, Parker possesses the self-discipline to make up for a wasted 18 months. Now appearing regularly in the Premiership again, a good football brain, tenacious tackling and an eye for a pass make him worth recalling.

Steve Tongue