Having tried almost every combination imaginable to solve the left-midfield dilemma that has troubled England for so many years, Sven Goran Eriksson seems to have settled on an unusual solution: leave the position vacant.
Setting aside Wayne Rooney's emergence as a striking partner for Michael Owen, the most enduring image from the back-to-back qualifiers against Macedonia and Liechtenstein was the gaping hole on the left. With no natural left-footers in his squad, and no one in the Premiership staking a claim, Eriksson has had to select right-sided or central midfielders to fill the role.
Since he took over in February 2001, the Swede has tried nine players, from Nicky Barmby to Emile Heskey, in the trouble spot. No one has sufficiently impressed to make the position his own. More worrying still is the fact that no one has demonstrated he could cope with the pace and cunning of Emre when England play Turkey in the crucial Euro 2004 qualifier in Istanbul next month.
"It has been England's big headache for years now," says Chris Waddle, arguably the national team's last genuine left-winger. "With no natural players to do the job, the manager will have to keep on picking his best team and hope for the best."
Eriksson may be putting square pegs in round holes, but England's record-breaking eight consecutive victories prove that the DIY coaching is working. The question is, though, will he come unstuck in the most important game of all? "The key in Turkey will be defend-ing," Waddle says, "so at least we don't have to find an out-and-out wide man."
Eriksson couldn't find one if he tried, so the Swede will probably continue to choose his most experienced players. But Paul Scholes is the key. A member of Eriksson's Fab Four - the untouchable midfield quartet also comprising David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Nicky Butt - he may have to be ruled out tomorrow if a specialist advises an immediate hernia operation.
If Rooney plays behind Owen, with Gerrard and Butt in central midfield, we may see a straight fight between Frank Lampard and the impressively versatile Owen Hargreaves on the left of the diamond. Scholes could have been deployed in that role, although his one appearance there for England was an unmitigated disaster in Slovakia. In the home tie against Turkey at Sunderland, Eriksson actually used Gerrard in the position to good effect, but the Liverpool man must play centrally now.
Lampard, the latest player to try to reinvent himself, believes he can do the job. "I'm happy to play on the left for England," says the Chelsea man, who started as the left-sided midfielder in Wednesday's attacking 4-3-1-2 formation. "We all know we don't have any natural left-sided midfield players, so we have to do our best. We haven't got a Ryan Giggs, so we have to find a different way. A lot of players have been tried, and hopefully as it goes along it will get better and I will be involved."
Lampard has been a regular fixture on, or near, the left wing in the last seven games. He has been a relative success, too, but only when Eriksson plays him on the left in a diamond. On Wednesday, he rarely ventured from the central area, often leaving Wayne Bridge isolated at left-back. Lampard accepts he struggled a little at Old Trafford, but insists he is benefiting from the learning process. "I've always been confident of my ability to deliver. I'm growing more comfortable with every game and I hope I'm given another chance in Turkey."
Lampard may get his wish if Eriksson decides to play the diamond in Istanbul, but it is hard to see him fitting into a more rigid 4-4-2. "It's not my normal place," he admits, "but I have gradually changed my game over the last two years, trying to improve the defensive aspect of my football. I was a bit naïve when I came from West Ham, but Mr Ranieri has certainly helped with the defending and made me more aware."
Assuming Steve McManaman's return to the Premiership with Manchester City has done nothing for his international prospects, the number of left-footed players Eriksson can call on is pitiful. Aston Villa's Gareth Barry is a name that crops up frequently, but he has yet to convince the England manager. If one is to deduce that Eriksson will not look beyond his current squad to find an answer before the Turkey game, the only viable option would be to play both Ashley Cole and Bridge. True, their first outing in tandem, in the 2-2 draw with Macedonia, was not the greatest success, but one senses that the partnership could develop with time.
"I like the idea of playing with Ashley," Bridge says. "I've watched the game we played in and I thought we did all right. I maybe strayed a bit out of position, but that's something I could pick up. I'd like another go at that."
Even better might be to play Cole in front of the Chelsea man. "Ashley does like getting forward," Bridge concedes, "so perhaps me playing at full-back and him at left-midfield would be ideal."
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