Eriksson ditches the diamond in move to widen England options

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The Independent Online

Maybe it was right that Claudio Ranieri should have been succeeded by Sven Goran Eriksson. Even now, at the last possible moment before England fly to Portugal, the Swede was still tinkering.

Maybe it was right that Claudio Ranieri should have been succeeded by Sven Goran Eriksson. Even now, at the last possible moment before England fly to Portugal, the Swede was still tinkering.

Having used Tuesday's friendly with Japan to polish the diamond formation he intends to use against France, the England head coach will employ a conventional 4-4-2 for the final rehearsal before the European Championship opens.

Eriksson knows he might be accused of indecision against Iceland at the City of Manchester Stadium this afternoon and yesterday he admitted to hedging his bets. Had Nicky Butt been fully match fit and had he been the player for Manchester United that he was during the World Cup, the diamond would have had an anchor. However, Butt is a player on the wane and Eriksson remarked that different formations might be employed in England's other group games against Switzerland and Croatia.

"I will decide the formation game by game when deciding what to do," he said yesterday. "If we have the opportunity to play both systems, then why not do so? But it doesn't matter what system you play, if you don't take up the right positions. We lost our shape a lot against Japan in the second half, hopefully because of tiredness." Certainly, Eriksson felt confident enough to all but announce his side 24 hours before kick-off. Paul Robinson will start his first international, while Jamie Carragher fills in at centre-half for John Terry, who is not fully match fit. After the half-time break, Eriksson will use no fewer than 10 substitutes and said with a weak smile that he hoped the paying public would understand.

Tuesday's encounter with Japan was for Eriksson both exhilarating and worrying. He maintained that for the first half an hour England performed on a plane which would have troubled even the French. After the interval, they were a mess. Hence, the rigorous new emphasis on physical fitness. "I talked to the French manager in the World Cup (Roger Lemerre) and one of the reasons he gave for them not doing well was they missed something in their physical preparation," Eriksson said. "It is very difficult when you have a big tournament as we do every second year and it is after the Premier League and the Champions' League. If you remember the World Cup, those teams, like [South] Korea, who had one or two months off, were physically much better than the others." That excuse will not run in Portugal. Only Russia, who are midway through their season, have had a different pattern of preparation, while of England's likely starting line-up in Lisbon, only Frank Lampard and John Terry travelled further than the European Cup quarter-finals.

It is not just the physical preparation that is worrying. Despite the outward shows of confidence, which range from statements by David Beckham that this is the best England side he has been involved with, to the St George's flags fluttering from seemingly every car, Eriksson's results have been poor.

The Swede does not care overmuch for friendlies, seeing them as more rarefied forms of training sessions but his run of results going into the European Championship are some of the worst by an England team before any major tournament. They have given no performances to have kept Europe awake. Last month in Eindhoven, the Netherlands took on a Greek side that had not conceded a goal in six competitive games and scored four times. There has been nothing from England on that scale.

Of their last six matches, only one has been won and that was against Liechtenstein at Old Trafford. Before England's most successful tournaments of modern times, the 1990 World Cup and the 1996 European Championship, Bobby Robson's and Terry Venables' teams won four of their final six games.

However, it has to be pointed out that Eriksson had a similarly unimpressive friendly record before the 2002 World Cup from which England emerged with credit. Yesterday, he said it was the big games - ones where his record is enviable - that matter. "We are not preparing for Japan or Iceland, we are preparing for when the tournament starts." A few months ago, it would have been a reasonable supposition that England's opening game against France would be foreshadowed by the departure of the manager to a London club. So it has proved but it is Jacques Santini's decision to seek Daniel Levy's employment at Tottenham rather than Eriksson's embracing of Roman Abramovich's wallet, which has triggered a fierce debate across the Channel.

Just as Bobby Robson was hysterically accused of betraying England by signing a contract with PSV Eindhoven before the 1990 World Cup, so Santini has been told by the French press he has handed England a crucial advantage before the teams meet in Lisbon. France, they said, would be destabilised. Eriksson thought the accusations ridiculous; they did not prevent England under Robson producing their best display in a foreign tournament and he doubted the French could be so easily deflected.

"I would be very surprised if that could disturb 23 players," Eriksson said. "Players, coaches and the manager are much too professional for that. What does the player want? He wants to win the tournament and as to who his manager is in August, who cares? If I said I was going to Chelsea, I would have been killed but by whom? I shouldn't have been murdered by the players, that's for sure. By the fans? I doubt it. By you in the media, certainly."

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