Eriksson's 'stability' lacks vision to create a dynasty

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For a few moments here yesterday, Sven Goran Eriksson might have been staring into the depths of one of those bottomless, glassy lakes back home in Sweden. Maybe for once, you sensed, even the Iceman recognised that mere inscrutability just wouldn't do.

For a few moments here yesterday, Sven Goran Eriksson might have been staring into the depths of one of those bottomless, glassy lakes back home in Sweden. Maybe for once, you sensed, even the Iceman recognised that mere inscrutability just wouldn't do.

He was facing, after all, a question that went beyond the circus of controversy that has engulfed so much of his work since he flew in from Rome as the ballyhooed answer to a bankrupt football nation's prayers.

Suddenly, it wasn't a matter of whether he is too soft on Beckham, too hard on Nancy, or perhaps if deep down he would prefer to be somewhere else, maybe Stamford Bridge, rather than tonight playing a friendly so devalued that the Spanish Football Association is hawking 10-euro tickets on the street outside the Bernabeu Stadium.

No, it was about the core of what he is about. He was asked to look back and consider quite how well or badly he had done as coach of England over the last four years.

"Forty-eight games is a lot to consider, but yes I'm proud of certain things," Eriksson said. "The games against Germany and Argentina stand out, and we played well against Turkey ... I think we did rather well in major competitions, but it hurts that we lost to Brazil and Portugal [in the quarter-finals of the World Cup and the European Championship respectively]. I hope and wish we could do better ... and I think we can do it. I agree that reaching a quarter-final is not good enough.

"I achieved my first objective of qualifying for the World Cup in 2002 ... Some will say I've done a good job, but others will say I have underachieved."

So there was no definite verdict, and, when you thought about it, how could there be? Whatever else he is, or isn't, Eriksson is a brilliant survivor, a man who can move so skilfully on shifting ground that his critics and his pursuers are never quite sure which it is that makes them so futile, his footwork or his charm.

Yes, he insisted, England are better now than when they ransacked German pride in that qualifying game in Munich three years ago. He said the team had more pace, more experience, and was better technically. "We are better," said Eriksson and, as he came as near as he has ever done to pounding a table-top, added, "Yes, we are better - and not by a little."

But then how has it happened, if indeed it has? It is a hard question to answer in this city of all cities where England's only World Cup-winning manager, Sir Alf Ramsey, laid down his blueprint for victory in a match at the Bernabeu 39 years ago.

For Ramsey, the concept of a meaningless friendly match was beyond his imagination. Friendly matches were the international manager's only means of honing a team, building an instinctive understanding between players whose time together was inevitably brief. Yesterday you had to think about that when you considered the statistics of Eriksson's work in non-competitive games. In 20 friendlies Eriksson has made 177 substitutions at an average of 8.7 per match. Quite apart from utterly cheapening the value of an England cap - something David Beckham might want to reflect upon when he talks of his ambition to exceed the number awarded to Sir Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore - it is a policy diametrically opposed to the methodology of Ramsey and, if we need to deepen the point, of the great dynasties of Brazilian and Italian football.

Talent at the international level, it is classically asserted, does not progress simply by its own momentum. It has to be shaped and disciplined, and made an integral part of a developing unit.

Eriksson defined his style a little more openly than ever before yesterday. He talked of the value of stability. If a leading player slips in his performance, you do not cast him into the wilderness. You give him "calm and stability." But then what do you do with a Joe Cole, apart from taking him to major tournaments and letting him stew in his own frustration? You give him a run, you try to dispense at least a little ration of the stability which is doled out so generously to the established members of the England club.

When Eriksson is criticised for systematically reducing friendly matches to farce - and with ever-increasing certainty making them an endangered species - there is, of course, a deeper allegation. It is that while he may be adept at soothing the egos of multi-millionaire players, as he did effectively at Lazio in delivering the scudetto, he is simply not made to be an international manager.

Yesterday he admitted his problem with the fact that it is only every second year that he has a chance of winning a trophy. He likened that burden of expectation to the challenge of a leading Premiership manager, who has four chances of running to glory every season.

It was a revealing moment, a confirmation that in some ways Eriksson has always been an alien animal on the international stage. His style is marked by low risk; no one can argue that after his first scatter-gun approach to the challenge of identifying English talent, he has not settled on the most gifted players in the land. He goes for the best players, which is sound, but how well does he drive them out of their comfort zones? How well does he define, and prepare them, for the challenge of genuinely contending to be the best in the world?

The recent affair of Beckham's gratuitous injury and admission that he deliberately broke the laws of football when incurring a yellow card and a suspension is surely the prime example of Eriksson's selective dispensing of calm and stability. Not only did the captain escape a rebuke, he comes straight back into the team after just one, peripheral outing for Real Madrid at a time when the promise of young Shaun Wright-Phillips to bring bite and pace along the right was something that could have been examined on a big and, suddenly, significant stage.

But that would have been to disturb the still, calm waters of a Swedish lake. Despite that biting question, the enigma of Sven Goran Eriksson sails on.