England tempted by six-pronged attacking promise

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The Independent Football

It says something about the transformation of Sven Goran Eriksson's England team over his four years in charge that, of the three players who scored the goals against Spain at Villa Park in February 2001, the only one who actually started the game played for Hull City this weekend. Farewell, Nick Barmby and welcome to a brave new world of Shaun Wright-Phillips, Wayne Rooney and the 4-3-3 formation.

It says something about the transformation of Sven Goran Eriksson's England team over his four years in charge that, of the three players who scored the goals against Spain at Villa Park in February 2001, the only one who actually started the game played for Hull City this weekend. Farewell, Nick Barmby and welcome to a brave new world of Shaun Wright-Phillips, Wayne Rooney and the 4-3-3 formation.

Four years with England and finally Eriksson seems to have discovered an attacking formation that has no place for compromise. No player who considers his right foot to be his strongest asset is being forced to take the lonely walk out to the left wing. No inadequate left-winger is being promoted to earn his one international cap. Instead, against the Netherlands tonight, there is the prospect of Eriksson selecting an attack that might just be his strongest option come the World Cup in 2006.

With Wright-Phillips on the right and Rooney on the left, it should have been a good day for Eriksson yesterday. But not even a rare confirmation of part of his line-up - that Wright-Phillips will play - will drown out the dispute that his comments over Ashley Cole is likely to provoke. Unwillingly, but inevitably, Eriksson has been drawn into the politics of the country's leading clubs once again and how his team plays tonight will dictate how quickly those words will be forgotten.

Put aside the problems that Eriksson has endured in finding a central defensive partnership and consider the front six that he looks set to select. He will most likely start with Michael Owen in attack supported by Rooney and Wright-Phillips and a midfield three of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard behind them. An alignment in the fitness, form and availability of these six players so rarely falls on the week of a friendly international.

If this is the natural conclusion to four years of refinement, then consider what Eriksson began with. Against Spain on 28 February 2001, he named Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Barmby in the midfield with an attack of Owen and Andy Cole. From the bench he summoned, among others, Gavin McCann, Michael Ball and Ugo Ehiogu. Along the way there have been 63 players, 33 of whom Eriksson has granted their debut, but there is now a sense that the first-choice XI is more difficult to break into than ever before.

Eriksson took us through all the old arguments again yesterday. That Beckham retains his absolute confidence, that Owen's absence from the Real Madrid starting XI does not preclude him from playing for his country and that this England team can win the World Cup. But tonight does represent one of his supreme acts of football diplomacy: a team with two natural right-wingers but no left-winger and a combination of the Beckham generation with the one that is likely to follow it.

The lingering memories of that dismal defeat by Spain in November and the serious malfunction of Rooney's temper that led to his first-half substitution were, Eriksson said, no longer a cause for concern. He rejected suggestions that Rooney might not be trusted to stay calm tonight and pointed to the manner in which the 19-year-old seemed to reel in his temper in the second half of United's match against Arsenal this month.

"I might speak to him about it, but I will not make a big deal about it," Eriksson said. "Of course, I don't want him to get a red card, but I don't think it's a problem. You can't take away his temperament. That's part of why he is such a good football player. You saw him in training for example and he hates to lose. We were talking about Arsenal and in the second half he was perfect, absolutely perfect."

The England coach also defended his calls for a four-week break before the World Cup next summer that might see the FA Cup final switched to a midweek date to accommodate the schedule of the national team. He tipped his hat to the tradition of the English football season but simply asked again that his team should not be asked to play under the "handicap" of having just three weeks' break while the rest of Europe were given four.

When he was finally asked to name the biggest regrets of his four years in England he identified the defeats to Brazil in the 2002 World Cup and Portugal last summer at Euro 2004. "I would want the results to be different," he said. "They were two bad losses. What could I change? The wish of every manager when they lose a football match is to play it again, but it never happens."

That was typical Eriksson, the creature of logic for whom pragmatism will always prevail. Tonight is not simply an anniversary for him, but the chance to see how his attacking vision for the 2006 World Cup shapes up. It has been four years in the making.

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