Eriksson's wild tinkering serves England badly

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The Independent Football

Just before kick-off, a centenary of Swedish football was celebrated by a vast, rolling version of "Nessun Dorma", updated with a jungle beat and with an array of local teenagers dancing in the self-conscious, slightly embarrassed manner of the church-hall disco.

To anyone under 50 the exploits of 1966 are as unknowable as the deeds of Spitfire pilots to those brought up on CNN feeds of the Gulf Wars. To this generation, Italia '90 is the tournament by which England teams are measured, the summer of England's finest ever away performance; the summer of penalties, Pavarotti and "Nessun Dorma".

Then as now, the England manager was vilified for a flirtation with one of Europe's wealthiest clubs just before the tournament, although unlike Sven Goran Eriksson with Chelsea, Bobby Robson accepted PSV Eindhoven's offer. The headlines talked of "thirty pieces of silver" and a great betrayal. Those England supporters who had made it to Gothenburg did not join in condemnation of Eriksson. There was a banner demanding a manager be dismissed but it was directed at Gérard Houllier by "Swedish Liverpool fans".

Like Eriksson, Robson's private life was ruthlessly shredded and, like the Swede, he received the unequivocal backing of his players. In the words of Peter Beardsley at the time: "Sometimes he's defended us and he's cut his own throat doing so." Eriksson has done the same, particularly in supporting the threatened strike before England's fate in the European Championship was settled in Istanbul.

There is, though, one difference in the way the two men planned for a tournament which made Robson's reputation, and one which will probably decide Eriksson's. Not only were the friendlies Robson arranged against better sides ­ Italy, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Brazil, Denmark and Uruguay ­ they were played with roughly the same side and only one, the last, was lost.

Ill-disciplined goals conceded against Denmark and Sweden by teams differing wildly in personnel hardly suggest Eriksson is as vital as either his salary or the desperate attempts of the Football Association to cling on to him suggest. Alan Smith, who spent Tuesday evening complaining of years being played out of position by Terry Venables and Peter Reid at Elland Road, found himself on the right wing again.

It is this sheer wastefulness which most undermines Eriksson in non-competitive games. There were seven changes from the side that drew against the Portuguese in February. David Beckham and Sol Campbell were present but only in the form of pitchside adverts, promoting coverage of England's opening European Championship fixture with France. It is unlikely Darius Vassell will be starting that game.

He had precisely 12 minutes before he was felled terminally by a tackle from his team-mate at Aston Villa, Olof Mellberg; a challenge that could hardly have impressed the striker, let alone his manager, David O'Leary. His mood would not have been eased by the sight of Jermain Defoe striking the post barely a minute after replacing him.

From Robson's friendlies only two players emerged to join the side which shut out the Swedes in Stockholm in September 1989; David Platt and Paul Gascoigne supplanted Neil Webb and David Rocastle. Last night Gascoigne's successor as flawed working-class hero, Wayne Rooney, provided some of the few flashes of genuine frisson in a largely passive evening.

It may have been a forgettable night for most onlookers but for Jonathan Woodgate and Alan Thompson it was crucial. Neither had a game to cherish.

The Sunderland manager, Mick McCarthy, who made his career as a centre-half, believes Woodgate to be the most effective performer in that position in the country. He claims he suffers because, unlike Rio Ferdinand and, to a lesser extent, John Terry, he lacks elegance. At Newcastle, Woodgate has been a mature, commanding presence, but in sporadic appearances for England he has played as awkwardly as he runs. Last night was not an exception.

Thompson at least had a second half to convince Eriksson of his worth. In Scotland, where he now plies his trade, the verdict would be "not proven".

Thompson has had to overcome higher fences than the one Sweden presented him with yesterday. As a member of Newcastle's youth side, he smashed five neck vertebrae in a car crash and endured rejection by Kevin Keegan. Even when he settled at Aston Villa, he found himself stifled by the arrival of Paul Merson. Last night he was efficient for his allotted hour but at the age of 30 he needed to be sensational. That is the spirit-draining nature of being involved in friendlies under the arch-tinkerer.