Cole the fall guy in Owen's return

Eriksson has protected the secrecy of his decision on whether Owen will start against Northern Ireland in tonight's World Cup qualifier longer than the new 4-5-1 formation remained under wraps last week but last night his solution leaked at last. The 4-5-1 system will be kept with Owen installed as the lone attacker while Joe Cole, the match-winner against Wales on Saturday, is replaced on the left by a relocated Wayne Rooney.

That Owen deserves to play based on a record of 32 goals in 60 starts is undeniable. Whether he deserves to play instead of Joe Cole in the context of the Chelsea man's crucial Cardiff winner is another debate. Tonight Cole will be the first England player to be dropped after scoring the winner in a competitive international since Alan Smith in 1991 - when the former Arsenal striker scored against Turkey in a Euro '92 qualifier and was left out of the side to face Poland.

The match at the Millennium Stadium was not Cole's finest 76 minutes in an England shirt but his removal from the side says much about the rising status of Shaun Wright-Phillips and that he is no longer considered by Eriksson the most dispensable of his younger players. The 4-5-1 formation will also be a stern test of Owen's strengths as a lone striker in attack, and will ask Rooney to adapt again to a new role.

Beckham himself said that he felt Rooney's best position was on the right side of a midfield of five, a role he has occupied for Manchester United this season. The 19-year-old, he said, was "unstoppable" when he was played in from that position by the lone striker. "That is what Wayne is best at," Beckham said. "That's where he causes teams most problems, he gets the ball and runs at players."

At Windsor Park tonight, the challenge of a team ranked 116th in the world behind Rwanda and Lebanon will be the most gentle introduction that Owen could have hoped for in adapting to a radically different job for his country. A role more commonly occupied by strikers such as Ruud van Nistelrooy, Didier Drogba and Andrei Shevchenko, it was Owen's perceived unsuitability to the 4-5-1 formation that was understood to have restricted his options in this summer's transfer market.

But while Europe's best managers - including Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson - think otherwise about the strengths of the new Newcastle United striker, Eriksson begs to differ. With Owen on his own up front, the England coach must know that he is making another gamble, to accommodate his biggest names, which, should it go wrong, will rank with the worst blunders of his four-and-a-half-year regime.

All that Eriksson would divulge on Owen's readiness to start his season with a World Cup qualifier was the concession that the striker was "not match-fit for 90 minutes" but the England coach was militant in his refusal to reveal what part of the 90 minutes the striker would be involved in.

"His [Owen's] scoring record is incredible, especially for important games, he has always been up there," Eriksson said. "If he is fit, I think he deserves to play. Absolutely."

On Saturday, John Toshack smartly compared the problems of spreading the resources of his team to a chilly night in bed. When you pull the bedcover up to warm your head, it is your toes that suffer. Cover your feet and it's the problem in reverse. Eriksson can pick Owen and David Beckham regardless but increasingly he cannot, it seems, deploy a strategy that suits both of them. Against Northern Ireland, the 4-5-1 pattern solves the problem of the captain's deployment, but it leaves Owen in an unfamiliar role.

Beckham spoke yesterday about his indignation at the criticism he has endured from pundits like Alan Hansen and Terry Butcher, who have questioned his suitability to occupy a midfield holding role for England, and affirmed his unflagging belief in his own ability.

"Against any different player I believe I can play there," he said. "It's the ex-players who are saying it but I tend not to listen."

Eriksson, however, is certainly listening to Beckham. That chat after dinner last Tuesday has changed the role of not just the captain but Rooney and Owen too. The 4-5-1 system has stealthily become one of the England manager's biggest decisions.

Sport
Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
football
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home