There will be those, having waited impatiently for this moment, who will now be casting themselves in the role of Hans Christian Andersen's little boy. The one who saw the reality of the naked emperor's "new clothes". To these Little Englanders Wednesday's defeat by the Netherlands, in which England were comprehensively outplayed, proved that Sven Goran Eriksson is no better than his native predecessors.
While it will have certainly revealed to Eriksson the extent of his task as England coach, such a view is premature. England, short of match practice and missing key players, fielding a disjointed XI in each half, were taken apart by a good team which is not only further down the road in its redevelopment but also began with much better raw material. The Dutch, it should be remembered, only went out of the last two major tournaments on penalties at the semi-final stage. Since they are also preparing for a crucial fixture, their 1 September World Cup date in Dublin, they had as much to play for as England.
That said, England's performance was as flawed as White Hart Lane's staging of the game. As Michael Owen said, the passing was particularly poor. Though this has been a familiar theme of England defeats down the years it had seemed that this critical aspect had improved under Eriksson. However, it was not only players like Martin Keown and Jamie Carragher, who are not known for their passing skills, who struggled to find a team-mate. Pass-masters such as David Beckham and Paul Scholes faltered too. Add the evident lack of sharpness betrayed by the strikers Andy Cole and Robbie Fowler, and the inexperience of Owen Hargreaves and Ashley Cole, and the result was England's worst performance since Kevin Keegan resigned.
But while Eriksson may be Swedish he knows his Kipling, and his response to disaster was just as muted as it had been to triumph. "We did not play well in the first half and I have to accept that," he said. "I am sure we can do better. We must do better against Germany."
He refused to discuss individuals, either absent or present, and insisted he still knew 95 per cent of his team for the tie in Munich on 1 September. If they remain fit.
With that proviso Steven Gerrard, whose enterprise and energy was sorely missed, Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand and David Seaman will return. But the positions of left-back and left-wing are again in doubt, as is the identity of Owen's forward partner. If Fowler and Andy Cole spend the next fortnight out of their respective club sides, a strong possibility in Fowler's case, it is hard to see how Eriksson could field either in Germany. A solution, given the way the forward line became detached from the team, might be to recall Teddy Sheringham if fit or play Nick Barmby or Scholes in the "hole".
As well as working on his team's shape, Eriksson may be tempted to call up Willi Railo, his favoured sports psychologist, to work on a few minds. Although England had won five matches on the trot, started with five European Cup winners and knew several of their opponents from the Premier League, Eriksson had to admit: "We showed too much respect for them."
Memories of England's 4-1 defeat of the Netherlands at Euro 96 had clearly faded, despite the attempts of England fans to recall Terry Venables' triumph. Gary Neville was the only Englishman to have started then and now; Edwin van der Sar and Michael Reiziger the only Dutchmen.
The inferiority complex inherent in England's approach was echoed in the first question asked of Eriksson yesterday. Noting that he had said it was only to be expected that England should beat teams like Albania, Greece and Finland, what conclusion did he draw from failing against a leading nation? The questioner added: "This is what happens to England we usually lose these big games." This is true. In their past 31 matches against the leading quintet of Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands (France have only recently become a world power), stretching back 15 years, England have won four games and lost 16.
Eriksson brushed this aside, as he did the loss of his unbeaten record. "If you have a job like this," he said, "while you should be very focused on every game the main interest is getting to the World Cup."
To do so without enduring the play-offs he must, however, steer England to their first victory on German soil since 1965. It looks a taller order now than it did three days ago. "I am off to look for the positive points," said Eriksson as he left, clutching the match video. It will not have taken him long.Reuse content