Beckham outlines future as the heartbeat of irregular England

Wales 0 England 1

If the seventh World Cup qualifier of England's campaign proves to be the starting point for a fresh new departure in Beckham's life as an international footballer then it started inauspiciously enough. Quite who among the blazers of the Welsh Football Association booked Goldie Lookin' Chain, an act best described as irreverent, as the pre-match entertainment remains a mystery but their unflattering remark about Beckham's wife, Victoria, was symbolic of the nonsense he has long had to endure. By the end of the afternoon, England's new holding midfielder had redressed the balance.

The fundamental questions about the 4-5-1 formation - whether it will survive the return of Michael Owen, whether another bold new system will take its place by next summer -can only be answered when Sven Goran Eriksson knows exactly which players he has at his disposal next June. In the heat of a Millennium Stadium giddy with excitement at out-singing the visitors, the most obvious lesson to be learned was that 4-5-1 works well for England's captain.

Perhaps not for Wayne Rooney, and even in the case of Shaun Wright-Phillips and Frank Lampard, two players whose club Chelsea have pioneered the formation but for whom the system did not draw the very best performances. It did, at the very least however, place Beckham right back at the heart of the national team and once there he established a relevance that has escaped him of late when he has been dispatched to occupy a place on the right that has seemed increasingly more isolated.

His capacity for reinvention in other areas of his life has, we already know, been boundless. Reacquainting himself with Ryan Giggs in the tunnel before kick-off, was a reminder to the England captain that any footballer seeking to survive in the game beyond his 30th birthday must adapt quickly or face extinction.

Under pressure from a new generation at Old Trafford, Giggs' position is ever more perilous. If Beckham can consolidate as a holding midfielder, he might just be able to concede the right wing to Wright-Phillips and enjoy his remaining years in a role that does not threaten to expose him to the pace of younger men. Against Wales, he busied himself with the unglamorous task of stealing possession in front of his side's penalty box and yet still found a longer, more spectacular range for his passing on occasions.

His mood was good enough afterwards to remind everyone that he "does not pick the team" but would, no doubt, be thrilled to be selected in the same position for Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland. "I get more of the ball there and that means I can play different but it's all about what's best for the team," he said. "If the manager thinks the performance was good and he doesn't want to change it I'm happy. If he wants to change it, I'm happy with that as well. I give extra protection to the centre-halves. Rio [Ferdinand] said he felt a lot more comfortable. Defending isn't the best part of my game but it's a job I'm more than capable of doing."

A triumph of adaptation for their captain but elsewhere, England battled against themselves, rather than the more modest talents of John Toshack's admirable Wales side, to make 4-5-1 work. Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole failed to give them any width in the first half and even Rooney seemed so dissatisfied with the service that he continued to roam deep in search of possession. The confusion when Owen Hargreaves arrived on 76 minutes was such that the fragile understanding established until then was almost blown apart.

There might have been more scope for England to express themselves with less tension had Rooney finished after an exchange of passes between Steven Gerrard and the teenager in the first half which left only Danny Coyne between the striker and the goal. The goalkeeper, who struggles to make Burnley's side, pushed out the shot and Wright-Phillips was unable to claim the rebound. For a side built to encompass wingers England breached the rear of Wales' defence precious few times.

Lampard had a shot deflected wide from a Wright-Phillips' cross, and Joe Cole almost connected with an exquisitely volleyed cross from Beckham, but the real moment of danger in the first half came from the head of Hartson. When Ferdinand failed to dispossess Giggs, he crossed and the Celtic striker launched a header that Paul Robinson pushed away brilliantly.

They have found themselves goalless at half-time in both their previous World Cup qualifiers and it was not until the 54th minute that England at last broke through. When the goal came, it owed much to the merits of 4-5-1: a ball out right from Beckham to Wright-Phillips and a cross to Joe Cole that the Chelsea striker struck past Coyne via a deflection. The Wales goalkeeper, who performed beyond expectations, will choose to remember the Rooney lob he just pushed over the bar minutes later.

There was a siege of sorts on England's goal when Eriksson reorganised the midfield with only 14 minutes left to hold out and it was tribute to Beckham that his side seemed unbalanced when he was removed from the role in front of his own defence. He will be, once again, at pains to remind us this week that he does not pick the England team but if Beckham has at last found a job that gives him a place in the future of this side then you can expect him to prove reluctant to give it up.

WALES (4-4-1-1): Coyne (Burnley); Duffy (Portsmouth), Page (Coventry), Gabbidon (West Ham), Ricketts (Swansea); Davies (Everton), Robinson (Sunderland), Partridge (Bristol City), Fletcher (West Ham); Giggs (Man United); Hartson (Celtic). Substitutes: Koumas (WBA) for Robinson, 55; Collins (West Ham) for Page, 64; Earnshaw (WBA) for Davies, 69.

ENGLAND (4-5-1): Robinson (Tottenham); Young (Charlton), Ferdinand (Man United), Carragher (Liverpool), A Cole (Arsenal); Wright-Phillips (Chelsea) (Defoe 67), Gerrard (Liverpool) (Richardson 84), Beckham (Real Madrid), Lampard (Chelsea), J Cole (Chelsea) (Hargreaves 76); Rooney (Man United). Substitutes: Defoe (Tottenham) for Wright-Phillips, 67; Hargreaves (Bayern Munich) for J Cole, 76; Richardson (Man United) for Gerrard, 84.

Referee: V Ivanov (Russia).

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