Three games gone and England are still a side in search of a system. If there is any consolation to be found in that apparent dilemma after Tuesday's game of two halves - first half good, second half unspeakable - it can be derived only from history lessons reminding us that teams do tend to evolve as tournaments go on. Certainly that was the case in England's two most successful World Cup runs.
In 1966, plain Alf Ramsey might suddenly have hit upon a wingless system six months before the tournament began, to record a hugely impressive 2-0 win in Spain, but he then ignored it for the next eight games, using an astonishing total of five different wingers before ditching the lot halfway through the competition. Only then did the personnel and the system change, when in a spooky parallel - or happy omen, depending on your view - the leading scorer (Jimmy Greaves/ Michael Owen) collected a nasty injury and had to be replaced for the first knockout match, against South American opposition (Argentina/Ecuador). Come in Geoff Hurst/Wayne Rooney to make history.
The 1990 team, since they would have beaten a badly depleted Argentina in the final, were one penalty shoot-out away from joining the boys of '66 as footballing immortals; Shilton, Parker, Pearce would now trip off the tongue as smoothly as Banks, Cohen, Wilson. But, just as with Bobby Robson's other campaign four years earlier, improvement was achieved only after a fundamental change of system, at the instigation of the senior players.
Even at the past two World Cups, there have been significant changes along the way. In 1998 Glenn Hoddle rather perversely began with David Batty and Teddy Sheringham in the side, introducing the younger David Beckham and Owen only after defeat in the second game. Four years ago, injury prompted Sven Goran Eriksson to replace Owen Hargreaves, a defensive central-midfield player, with Trevor Sinclair, a wide attacking one, which proved a positive change in every sense.
This time round, Hargreaves, whose contribution against the Swedes was described as "brilliant" by the head coach, ought to be the beneficiary, having brought sufficient ballast and balance to the midfield against Sweden to merit continuing against Ecuador today. Instead, it seems his reward will be to play out of position at right-back, because Gary Neville is injured, Luke Young was left out of the squad and Jamie Carragher has been found wanting in his offensive duties. Retaining a holding man, albeit Michael Carrick rather than Hargreaves, means that Eriksson is able to continue with all of his fab four midfielders but must use either Wayne Rooney or Peter Crouch as the single striker, neither of them being particularly well suited to it.
On the most recent occasion England have played that way - in the 3-1 victory over Hungary - Owen was the man, but he received poor service, did not look sharp enough and the system was changed with 25 minutes to play by the introduction of both Crouch and Theo Walcott. Crouch finished last Tuesday's game on his own after Rooney was replaced by Gerrard, who stole forward to head what appeared at the time to be a winning goal. Although improving at holding the ball up, Crouch is more used to flicking it on for a second striker and would need to adjust accordingly, as would those, like Beckham, inclined to drive long diagonal passes towards his head.
So it is Rooney. He played there for 70 minutes against Wales in Cardiff last September but found it hard to disguise a natural preference to drop off and collect the ball in a deeper position.
Whoever plays, and whatever the system, the service has to be improved. Owen, not one of nature's moaners, clearly did not think much of it in recent games, however little use he made of the few decent passes received. There was reportedly a lively discussion between Gerrard and Beckham during a training session last week about the latter's propensity for hitting long, high balls, an exchange in which the influence of Gerrard's club manager might be detected. Rafa Benitez, like most foreign coaches arriving in England, was shocked at the manner in which players risked losing possession; in Spain's impressive victory against Tunisia last Monday, his compatriot Xabi Alonso gave a glorious exhibition of controlled longer passing. It is one of many lessons England still have to learn.
There are other problems with Beckham, who but for his status in the team would surely have been replaced by Aaron Lennon more than once in the tournament, perhaps even permanently. Eriksson missed a trick once Rio Ferdinand was injured, when Carragher could have gone into the middle and Beckham dropped to full-back again, since Freddie Ljungberg was offering so little threat.
Jamie Redknapp suggested in his newspaper column on Thursday: "David Beckham didn't play well against Sweden, he'd be the first to tell you that." Had the normally perceptive Redknapp been in the mixed zone where players either talk to or ignore reporters after games, he would, in fact, have heard England's captain reply when asked about his own form: "I was all right, I was happy with it when I got the ball. But it's tough getting on the ball in some games and today proved one of those."
England cannot afford tomor-row in Stuttgart to be another of them. Beckham has struck up no rapport down the right with Carragher and would be greatly helped by the return of his best friend and former Manchester United colleague Neville, but that is unlikely until a quarter-final next Saturday - if there is to be one.
To ensure that, Eriksson's team must tighten up again in defence (ensuring, apart from anything else, that Beckham is never again left marking the main opposition striker at a corner) and make the most of their good fortune in coming up against an eminently beatable Ecuador and not the improving hosts. Oh, and keep practising those penalties.
The comeback kids: Lively five to inspire Ecuador
CARLOS TENORIO The 27-year-old striker scored in Ecuador's first two group games, but was one of five rested for the game against Germany. Good header of the ball with plenty of experience - he played in all three of Ecuador's World Cup games four years ago - but playing in the Qatar league denies him regular top-class opposition, and he has been playing through a troublesome ankle injury.
AGUSTIN DELGADO Seeing Peter Crouch may remind the big centre-forward of his 143 goalless minutes playing for Southampton over two years, but Ecuador's all-time leading goalscorer with 31 already has two in the first two games in Germany.
IVAN HURTADO The captain had a big game against Poland. He marshals the defence from centre-back, has a wealth of experience - he first appeared for Ecuador in 1988 in an U-16 event at the age of 14 - and 132 senior caps. Good temperament, too; he has never been sent off in an international.
SEGUNDO CASTILLO Tireless midfield runner who likes to come forward, is good in the air and has a strong shot. Only played two qualifiers, but was regular in friendlies during the build-up to Germany.
NEICER REASCO Good covering defender with both pace and power, who can also play in midfield. Left-footed delivery can be dangerous at set-pieces, and is one of the reasons Sao Paulo of Brazil have signed him.
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