Sven Goran Eriksson, reflecting on Darius Vassell's successful England debut, said: "It is good to have positives because, before I have to pick my World Cup squad, there will also be negatives."
Even before Eriksson's plane touched down from Amsterdam yesterday, that proved true. Kieron Dyer who, lamented Eriksson, "we hope to play but is always injured", announced he was ruled out for at least a month. Dyer's latest setback is a stress fracture of his foot. The Newcastle midfielder, who is yet to play under Eriksson, said: "When I found out I was totally gutted, devastated in fact. Things were going really well for me.
"I think this has ruined my chance. Mr Eriksson has to see me play before he can pick me and there are few chances left. My World Cup dreams are slipping through my fingers." Since Dyer will almost certainly miss the 27 March friendly against Italy at Elland Road, the 17 April match, against Paraguay at Anfield, would appear his last opportunity.
Bobby Robson, his club manager, offered hope. "If I were Sven," the former England coach said, "I would hang in there because Kieron is too clever to leave out. It might not be too late. He would be the freshest player at the finals." Eriksson may yet follow Robson's advice, not least because there is a clear role for Dyer in the re-shaped England team unveiled in Amsterdam.
After a year's matches, Eriksson has come to terms with the practicalities of his job. Always a student of the English game, he has had his preconceptions confirmed and is to play to national strengths rather than attempt to foist an unfamiliar style on the players.
England will thus travel to Asia this summer with instructions to play the ball early and long. To critics this indicates a depressing return to the bankrupt 'direct football' philosophy of Charles Hughes and Wing Commander Reep, as exemplified by Watford and Wimbledon in the 1980s. But there is a crucial difference. Eriksson wants the ball played forward from midfield, not defence; with a clear purpose, rather than just 'putting in the mixer'; and to the likes of Michael Owen, not John Fashanu.
"We are not as good as Argentina, France, maybe Holland, at keeping the ball," Eriksson said. "That need not be a problem. For teams such as Italy, France and the best South American teams retaining possession is their keystone, their way. That is not the way in the north of Europe and I am not here to make another style. You can't do that in one or two years." Eriksson's aim is a team opening up opponents through sharp counter-attacks rather than outmanoeuvring them with prolonged and intricate passing.
The first attacking option is pace, as provided by Owen and Vassell. Plan B is to get the ball forward to the feet, not head, of a target man who would seek to hold it until midfielders such as Dyer arrive in support. With Ricketts failing his audition, this role is Heskey's.
The platform is a tight three-man midfield as demonstrated by David Beckham, Stephen Gerrard and Paul Scholes – all fine long passers – on Wednesday. Eriksson added: "The way Holland, Argentina, France and Italy play it is difficult to get the ball with just two central midfielders. I talked with the senior players about playing three and they were very pleased. I think we are better prepared for the World Cup now."
Just as the formation is taking shape, so is the personnel. Both Vassell and Wayne Bridge made strong cases for inclusion in Eriksson's final 23. "He [Vassell] has only done one game," said Eriksson. "We will see how he goes on. If he continues to play like that I must consider him. It is very good to see one more who can play international football with the pace he has."
Vassell's emergence especially jeopardises Alan Smith's chances, as Eriksson is unlikely to take two rookie forwards. Owen, Heskey, Teddy Sheringham and, probably, Robbie Fowler, will go but Kevin Phillips' chances continue to dwindle while Andy Cole is now a 50-50 bet. Bridge, who was only withdrawn at half-time because of a foot injury, looked solid defensively and bright when augmenting the attack. He has suffered from concentration lapses in the past but not this time, even being on hand to rescue Sol Campbell when he walked into trouble.
Campbell's stagnation is a concern along with the wide left position which, in the absence of Dyer, Trevor Sinclair and Darren Anderton will hope to claim against Italy. Otherwise Eriksson's England continues to progress. The Swede is as aware as anyone, however, that there is still much to be done before June, and much that can happen, both good and ill.
Wed 27 March: Italy (Elland Road, Leeds)
Wed 17 April: Paraguay (Anfield, Liverpool)
Tues 21 May: South Korea (Cheju, South Korea)
Sun 26 May: Cameroon (Kobe, Japan)