Beckham offers new middle way

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The Independent Football

During the European Championship the Uefa Technical Study Group, a collective of coaching sages including Gérard Houllier, Joseph Venglos, Andy Roxburgh and the Deportivo la Coruña coach, Javier Irureta, felt England were one of the few genuinely tactically innovative teams.

It was the midfield which excited them, for it was the first occasion in a modern major championship that a contending team had played without a defensive holding midfielder. Critics will see that as ironic given that England spent much of the tournament defending and only Frank Lampard of England's quartet performed to expectations.

Eriksson, too, clearly had reservations because on Wednesday night in Newcastle he reverted to convention, recalling the fit-again Nicky Butt to act as a defensive shield. After the ultimately comfortable 3-0 win over Ukraine he confirmed that Butt, or a similar player, was back to stay.

"We need a defensive midfielder because many teams now drop an attacker [into the hole] and it is difficult for centre-backs to mark them," said Eriksson. "If you have two central midfielders and a player always dropping behind them he causes problems for the back line, getting the ball, turning and passing or running with it. Of those four players, Nicky Butt is the most natural sitting midfielder, it is in his genes."

Butt delivered his usual performance: disciplined, calm, mopping up attacks and, when he had the ball, seeking to give it to the nearest team-mate. The interesting aspect of Wednesday's match was what happened after he was withdrawn 53 minutes into the friendly. Shaun Wright-Phillips came on to play on the right, where he was very impressive, albeit against moderate and fading opponents, and Beckham moved into the centre.

The England captain had been having an excellent game on the right and he continued to do well in the centre, both offensively and defensively. Last season he played much of the year in such a role with Real Madrid and may do so again this season, especially if the Spanish team fail to sign a Patrick Vieira-type player.

Beckham, whatever his form, has always been a disciplined, team-orientated player and he did a lot of work tracking back on Wednesday, especially when Wright-Phillips and Glen Johnson, two attack-minded players, were in partnership on the right.

His tackling is not as clean as Butt's, but he brings much more creativity to the position. Wright-Phillips adds missing ingredients to England's midfield - pace and width - and a player like him needs to be accommodated, especially if Stephen Gerrard is to play on the left. Moving Beckham inside is a way of doing this.

This is for the future. Although Poland lost 5-1 at home to Denmark on Wednesday, and Austria 3-1 at home to Germany, Eriksson will approach the September World Cup qualifiers in Vienna and Katowice with due caution. If they are fit, the quartet which started on Wednesday will be the midfield.

Sol Campbell will return at centre-half, probably for Ledley King, leaving only the identity of Michael Owen's partner in doubt. Wayne Rooney is not expected to be match-fit, so the choice is likely to be between Alan Smith and Emile Heskey and should come down to whoever is showing the best form. Jermain Defoe, while clearly a natural goalscorer, is too inexperienced at present given his similarity to Owen.

"To win is good because otherwise there would be criticism of the squad until we played Austria," added Eriksson. "I hope this will calm things down. We are back to talking about football again, that is good and I hope it stays that way for the next four years.

"We have been criticised, all of us. It has been mostly myself but I can live with that. I have had that all my working life. David [Beckham] has been criticised. He was not brilliant in Portugal, but he was disciplined and worked hard. I'm sure he'll have a great season. He wants to show the criticisms haven't broken him.

"The squad as a whole has also been criticised. I talked to them before the match and said the only thing we can do, because we will never have the last word, is to win football games. In football everyone has their own opinion, especially if you lose. The only answer is to win games."

With due respect to Wales, the only qualifying opponents with an attack capable of worrying England, Eriksson's team should be able to continue winning until they arrive in Germany for the 2006 finals.

The test for Eriksson is whether he will then be able to guide the team past quality opponents or whether England will again be betrayed by their inability to retain possession of the ball. Eriksson's use of Beckham, the team's best passer, will be crucial. The second half on Wednesday may have offered a glimpse of England's midfield future.

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