England switch over to Absolutely Fallible

Click to follow
The Independent Online

After the Gold Rush... The title of the Neil Young song came to mind as the England players trooped off the strength-sapping St James' Park surface, victory easing the weariness in their limbs like a skilled masseur. At times, the mine of talent (and their minds, for that matter) had appeared exhausted. Four days on from the Munich goal-fest, England looked strangely fallible rather than utterly fabulous.

Yet, for Sven Goran Eriksson it must have come almost as a relief that his team approach automatic World Cup qualification with their chance of success in Japan and Korea back in its correct perspective. Confidence is one thing, but on the whole England travel better when they do so without excessive swagger and more with the uncertainty of a young beau meeting his prospective parents-in-law.

The Swede has already discerned from the outpouring of xenophobia which followed the Germany result that, with such achievement in his adopted homeland, comes clinging, almost suffocating expectation. A return to normality was what England needed; a return to real international football, in which even Brazil, Argentina and France don't perform like potential champions in every game; real international football, in which England are fortunate to defeat Finland at home and are brutally exposed by Luis van Gaal's Holland, who are then beaten by Ireland and fail to qualify.

Munich is to be cherished, but it was a freak. Against Germany, the scale of the victory tended to conceal flaws. Perversely, those weaknesses were more highlighted by the Albanians than the Germans, the former a technically proficient, passing team, though without the serrated edge provided by a Michael Owen to embarrass their hosts. Eriksson admitted that he had been overwhelmed by the media and public response to the Germany triumph. He described it as "positive... but huge". He added: "The passion in this country for the England team, the reception here when we arrived on the bus, I have never seen anything like that. I said to Beckham, our captain, 'Not even United have that when they come into a home game, do they?' "

Against Albania, he was able to field the side in which he currently puts most faith, identical to the team who faced Germany. Strangely, this was a contradiction of his own theories in his book, Sven Goran Eriksson on Football written in conjunction with the sports psychologist Dr Willi Railo, in which he declares: "It might sound illogical, but I say, 'Always change a winning team'."

Eriksson claims that he was justified in breaking his own rules. "Maybe you should change but after a performance like that – which was not just a win, but a big, big win – my head and my heart told me that they all deserved to start."

It was a ploy which worked, though none too convincingly, with the drive to the summit of Group Nine confirmed. But it served to make those of us who would celebrate prematurely aware that there is still an element of naïvety about some of the first-choice players; for all their potential, they are barely out of the crèche.

Pity, for instance, Ashley Cole, maligned because of his defensive frailties. We despair of him at times because he does not yet suggest the authority of a Paolo Maldini down that left flank. But why should he? Not yet 21, he has played senior football less than two years. And part of that initial experience was with Crystal Palace. He has the temperament and intelligence to prosper with experience.

Pressed on whether there was capacity for improvement within his team, Eriksson insisted: "I think so, with young players like Owen, Gerrard and Ashley Cole. They can still be better and I'm sure they will be." Neither does he believe that England have peaked too early. "Absolutely not," he declared. "They can only have peaked in Germany if they are not hungry, because if they want to win, they want to reach the World Cup, and if they want to learn, the peak is a long way away."

The coach is aware that his defenders do suffer occasional lapses, but refuses to condemn them or dwell on them. "When we came together after Germany we tried to work on those things and try to do better and better," he said. "We played Campbell and Ferdinand and they did very well, but I don't think they are 100 per cent fit, neither of them. They will get better and better. I'm not worried."

However, Eriksson's seven wins from eight games under his stewardship should by now have made him aware that England do not necessarily possess the proven strength in depth that some erroneously believe exists. At the start of the season, Eriksson has enjoyed the rare luxury of availability of all his first choices. What happens when the rigours of the Premiership exact their toll prior to that anticipated departure for the Far East?

In his book, Eriksson warns of the perils of too much dependence on certain players. When he was at Roma it was Falcão. When the Brazilian was not available (which was frequently) the other players actually said: "We cannot play without Falcão." Conceivably, something similar could happen in the absence of England's "key" personnel. Steven Gerrard would arguably be the the most significant loss, the equivalent of Manchester United without Roy Keane, the man responsible for providing that vital momentum from deep, but also augmenting attack when required.

There are irritating aspects to the Liverpool midfielder's game, the tendency constantly to look for the extravagant long ball when a simpler one would suffice, which allows the opposition to acquire possession too cheaply, and the occasional reckless challenge, but that should not detract from his enormous significance. Although there are performers like Jamie Carragher, Owen Hargreaves and, in the wings, Sunderland's underrated Gavin McCann, it is unlikely that they could yet fill such a void. Eriksson's greatest test to come will be to effect adequate surgery on a team when such vital organs are damaged.

"It's a very good team," he says of Wednesday's starting XI. "But we can change something, maybe. Outside the squad there are some players who should try to come in." He added: "I have to keep on travelling, looking to see if I can find something better? But it will not be easy.Don't forget, we have some injured players, some who are not fit, some who cannot play for other reasons [Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate], and some youngsters [in David Platt's Under-21s]."

Specifically, he mentioned older performers such as Martin Keown, "who will be a very important player". Yet, while the contribution of Keown, and Gareth Southgate, Ugo Ehiogu, Graeme Le Saux and maybe in time Gareth Barry, should not be underestimated as stand-in defenders, they do not inspire the same faith in their ability as Rio Ferdinand, who grows in stature with every international game, and Sol Campbell, who in fitness terms looks far from the proverbial butcher's dog.

Neither are there ready-made replacements for Beckham. Never mind captain; at times against Albania, he appeared to be attempting to emulate General Patton, such was his lust for glory. The versatile Kieron Dyer is one who could understudy Beckham – and equally could play on the left, although the dependable Nick Barmby appears relatively settled in that berth.

The fact is that, by the time next summer arrives, there could be quite a different look to the England team. "Of course it is a concern," replied Eriksson to the observation that as the season progresses injury will heavily dictate selection. "To have a very good team, you have to have them more or less all available. It is the same with France and Argentina. But I am not concerned about it because I can't do anything about it. Let's just hope that we're lucky."

Thus far, he has been. But it would be churlish to suggest it has been just that. As Eriksson's "bible" on life advises us, "an attacking mentality gives better results than a defensive mentality". If he has achieved anything, it is to instil into his charges a new-found belief.

Comments