Eriksson engineers a system breakdown

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The Independent Football

Contrary to the cliché which has developed in four years of England internationals under the management of Sven Goran Eriksson, there is still no such thing as a "meaningless friendly". It just happens that on occasions, like Wednesday's at Villa Park, the lessons learnt - and there are always some - turn out to be negative.

Contrary to the cliché which has developed in four years of England internationals under the management of Sven Goran Eriksson, there is still no such thing as a "meaningless friendly". It just happens that on occasions, like Wednesday's at Villa Park, the lessons learnt - and there are always some - turn out to be negative.

The previous low point is always said to be the game against Australia at Upton Park two years ago, when Eriksson - in deference to leading Premiership managers whose co-operation he needed - stuck to his controversial plan to field a reserve team in the second half. It was as an indirect result of that decision that Fifa eventually reduced the maximum number of substitutions per team in non-competitive matches to six.

Yet that allegedly pointless night in east London was in fact useful on several other counts. One, of huge significance, was to prove that the Everton prodigy Wayne Rooney, at 17, was ready for international football; Paul Robinson and Jermaine Jenas also showed on their debuts that they could cope at that level; Charlton's left-back Paul Konchesky suggested he could not; Ledley King and Francis Jeffers had the jury divided and therefore earned further opportunities to impress, which they used to contrasting effect.

King took his subsequent one splendidly when the annual injured-centre-backs epidemic struck last February, going straight into the side against Portugal after being called up as a late replacement and effectively winning a place at Euro 2004, where he played superbly against France. James Beattie, on the other hand, performed so wretchedly in another supposedly meaningless fixture at home to Denmark (in November 2003) as to play himself out of contention, and has not been picked since.

So it was last Wednesday, in a match described beforehand as "descending into farce" because a whole minibus full of central defenders happened to be unavailable again. The phrase ignored the fact that England would line up with at least eight of their strongest starting XI, hoping for proof that Shaun Wright-Phillips would become the ninth. That he was unable to confirm it was one of the night's numerous negative outcomes. Others were that the 4-3-3 formation did not work, and rarely will without two natural wingers à la Chelsea, or two defensive wide players à la Greece; that neither Rooney nor the unfortunate Andy Johnson are those players; that Michael Owen needs greater support, whatever the tactics; and that, as Jamie Redknapp put it on behalf of a bemused BBC television panel, square pegs do not fit round holes. Or, as the old football adage has it, systems don't make players, players make systems.

Perhaps there is no Swedish equivalent of that little piece of wisdom. Although essentially a 4-4-2 man, Eriksson has in the past shown sufficient flexibility to deploy either a flattish or diamond-shaped midfield, with the furthest forward of the quartet variously an attacking midfielder like Paul Scholes or (for two games last autumn) a third striker in Rooney. But having seen how ineffective Rooney was in the first half at Villa Park, partly because he and Wright-Phillips switched flanks for such long stretches, it was perverse to persist with the new system once the personnel changed.

The available players best equipped to make it work were Wright-Phillips and Stewart Downing, out wide, with Johnson down the middle (where he plays so successfully for Crystal Palace), supplied from one side by the Wright-Phillips clone Wayne Routledge. Instead, Eriksson took as his starting point the debatable notion that Owen needed a full 90 minutes' football to help him prepare for the next England games, more than six weeks away. In selecting the round hole on the right for Palace's square peg, and slavishly putting system before players, he compounded the fault that Trevor Francis, Johnson's former manager at Birmingham and Palace, had observed earlier in the striker's career: "He never made it to the Under-21s, but it was partly because England would often play him [at Under-18 and Under-20 level] as the right-sided player in a three-pronged attack, which didn't produce the best from him." Time to update the Johnson file at Soho Square, chaps.

Holland were a little more comfortable with the same system, which they have effectively been using since Dennis Bergkamp's international retirement - at Euro 2004, for instance, employing Marc Overmars or Andy van der Meyde, plus Arjen Robben, on either side of Ruud van Nistelrooy. But their coach, Marco van Basten, while happy with the goalless draw achieved by his weakened squad, also stood accused of forcing a square object into a circular orifice; why, Dutch journalists demanded of him, was the Bayern Munich centre-forward Roy Makaay played out on the left, where he proved every bit as ineffective as Rooney?

"It's not his best position, but we had to make choices, as Robben wasn't there," Van Basten replied, before adding: "This is the national team, so Makaay has to accept he plays left-wing." That more forceful tone is not Eriksson's style. Unswervingly the players' man, he sprang to their defence with exaggerated praise for both the tactics and the performance.

One mystery the Swede cleared up later was the question of who was supposed to be England's holding midfielder, a role to which Nicky Butt may yet return. Answer: nobody, because Holland did not use Rafael van der Vaart as a second striker, so Steven Gerrard was freed to play further forward. And why such a rough deal for Johnson and Downing? "To try everything you have to give me more games. You have to take care to see new talent, but at the same time I want to prepare the team that's going to play against Northern Ireland. I had 90 minutes to see what I want to do against them."

A depressing evening, then; not to be confused with a wasted one, if the right lessons are learnt.