For a man of such normally immaculate footwork, Sven Goran Eriksson was probably unwise to lock himself into a tactical debate about the value of the "early ball" after England's hugely predictable 1-1 stalemate with his perennially well organised and hard-working compatriots from Sweden.
In no time at all he could find himself cast as an heir to the "route one" tradition of Graham Taylor and the old czar of Football Association coaching, Charlie Hughes. This would be a catastrophic career turn for a man who has produced winning football in his native country, Portugal and Italy, where reliance on the long-ball has always been seen as the equivalent of trying to bring down a B-52 with a flintlock.
What Eriksson was almost certainly lamenting was the absence of not so much the early ball but the right ball. The ball of finesse and penetration. David Beckham was by some distance again the most able proponent of such delivery, but he produced relatively few examples of the art as the Swedes intelligently, and tirelessly, filled holes in their defence. Indeed, the cynically inclined might have been tempted to believe that in view of his recent performances for Manchester United, Beckham had decided that playing out of his skin again for England at, of all places, Old Trafford, might have been seen as a dangerous provocation of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Whatever the reason for Beckham's failure to inflict himself on the game anywhere but on the penalty spot from where he converted the award won, fraudulently it seemed, by Trevor Sinclair, the result was another confirmation of what we have known for some years.
It was that with the decline of Paul Gascoigne, England's creativity in the face of the best defences is severely limited, and will remain so in next summer's World Cup finals short of any stunning growth of sophistication in the powerful game of Steven Gerrard. Thus Eriksson's Swedish counterpart, Lars Lagerback, was able to assess England's status going into the big tournament without any fear of serious contradiction. No, England could not be seen among the favourites, but undoubtedly they could, in the right circumstances, be classed as outsiders of some potential.
Favouritism surely belongs to the reigning champions, France and the best of South America, Argentina, because they have a precious presence so utterly missing in the Old Trafford deadlock. It is of a player or players who can split open a defence with one flash of insight, one perfectly measured piece of penetration. Such initiatives flowed from Gascoigne in that brief period before his professional life became a mere adjunct of his celebrity, and they have never been adequately replaced. Beckham hits a ball beautifully and his efforts on behalf of his country since his appointment as captain have mostly been exemplary, but if he can, when he chooses, be a captain of inspirational effort, he cannot do what Patrick Vieira does for France, Juan Sebastian Veron for Argentina, and Roy Keane for Ireland. He cannot shape a close match with the range and the force of his game. He saved England, magnificently, in the last qualifying game against Greece. But he did it with the familiar excellence of his dead-ball kicking rather than the sheer nous required to break open Sweden last Saturday.
The value of such a friendly match has come under some scrutiny, but of course it has long been one of the illiteracies of English football that time for the national coach to develop his understanding of the nature and talent of his players, while under his command, has always been reluctantly granted. On Saturday Eriksson certainly enhanced his knowledge of fringe contenders for a place in the World Cup squad, and if a division of winners and losers at this point is inevitably arbitrary there cannot be much doubt that Sunderland's Kevin Phillips finished in the second category.
He was busy enough but even the relentlessly diplomatic Eriksson had to agree that he could not "honestly" say the player had done much for his chances. Eriksson said he liked the things that Phillips did, but no doubt not so much as he disliked what he did not do, which was to give any convincing impression that any stage he might score a goal. Phillips' defenders could reasonably argue that if he was indeed playing for his international career, he should have had the benefit of at least one full game, but there can be little argument that when Phillips and Emile Heskey gave way to Robbie Fowler and Teddy Sheringham England instantly became more cohesive at the front.
Of the other trialists, Sinclair and Darren Anderton, while scarcely disqualifying themselves, failed to beat down any doors, Danny Murphy was industrious, and Danny Mills caught the eye while going forward, something he always tends to do. Less apparent are his credentials as an authentic defender of the temperament required in international football.
In the last few days Eriksson has variously estimated his World Cup "certainties" at between 12 and 18, and the true figure will no doubt fluctuate as England round off their preparations with friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy, and two more to be arranged. Much less of a debate, though, surrounds the identities of the bedrock figures on whom Eriksson's chances of any impact in Japan and South Korea rest. The key men are plainly Michael Owen, whose speed and assurance in front of goal might just have unhinged the Swedes if Eriksson had decided not to risk a barely healed hamstring injury, Beckham, Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand. The fact that both Owen and the notoriously fragile Gerrard were missing through injury, only underlined the hazards Eriksson faces on the way to the Far East.
Eriksson's hardest job was always going to be to impose on his players an instant tradition of patient, measured football on the international stage, and he has been the first to acknowledge his debt to the performances of key individuals. With two of the most dynamic of those individuals missing, the coach was obliged to face a reality that was always bound to resurface. Playing the right ball, rather than the predictable one, is not a habit bred into the average English footballer.Reuse content