Gerrard the priceless asset in England's diamond formation

Liverpool midfielder comes into his own as coach's new system pays dividends, but doubts remain over true worth of friendlies
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The debate within football as to what extent success depends on good players or smart tactics is an old one, but it seems reasonable to suggest the best teams have both. Sven Goran Eriksson, having inherited a clutch of talented individuals when he came to the England coaching job, now appears to have chanced upon the ideal framework in which they can express themselves.

Although Tuesday's jovial victory over Serbia and Montenegro increasingly appeared an exhibition rather than a contest there was enough of the latter at Leicester for England's players to again show their enthusiasm for the diamond midfield. Moreover, it was not just the jewels in Eriksson's squad which glittered, some lesser lights also sparkled.

Eriksson, having resorted to the formation in extremis in Bratislava in October, has taken time to be convinced by this variant on his preferred 4-4-2. Now, though, he seems as taken by a diamond as one imagines Nancy Dell'Olio would be.

"Every time we've played it we've done very well and I think it suits us at this moment," he said yesterday. "There are two reasons. First we can keep Paul Scholes a little bit more free. Secondly when you don't have David Beckham or a Ryan Giggs, real outside wide midfielders, it's very difficult to play with width." One player who seems to relish the change, whichever role he assumes within it, is Steven Gerrard. The Liverpool midfielder was an elemental force for England in the first half, relishing the added responsibility upon him in Beckham's absence.

Gerrard's last three caps have come at left-midfield (Turkey), midfield anchor (South Africa) and right-midfield (Serbia and Montenegro). Even on the left, after initially appearing unsure, he ultimately performed well, his growing familiarity with his international team-mates allowing them to exchange positions giving a fluidity to England's shape.

This was apparent on Tuesday. Having delivered telling crosses from the right he drifted inside before passing his way through the Serbian centre to score. "The system suits him and he can play anywhere in it," Eriksson said. "If you asked him I guess he would like to play as the sitting midfielder, but his range of passing was incredible."

Gerrard has yet to finish on the losing side with England in his 17 international appearances since his debut in May 2000. Equally pertinent is that the various injuries which caused him to miss defeats to Portugal, Romania, Germany, Italy (twice), Netherlands, Brazil and Australia appear to have eased. He has started seven of England's eight internationals this season (missing only Australia), his best run since breaking into the side.

"He's still young," added Eriksson. "Since I came to the country he's been a great player. He could play in any team in the world, for sure. He's a complete player. The difference in him since I came here and now is that he seems to be a very happy young man now. He smiles and talks a lot more than he did two years ago when I first came. That's a credit to him and Liverpool."

Gerrard is likely to stay on the right for England against Slovakia at Middlesbrough on Wednesday in the Euro 2004 qualifier with Phil Neville remaining in the anchor role. Though Owen Hargreaves would appear to have the surer touch and brighter future Neville did well at Leicester and Eriksson said: "He played brilliantly, very intelligent. This season is the first time I've seen him as a sitting midfielder. I think he did it occasionally before, but for [Manchester] United he's done it very well. He's very clever, a good passer and very disciplined. We know that if we put him in that role he will never let us down."

Eriksson also complimented Frank Lampard though he could face pressure from Trevor Sinclair for the left-flank role should the latter recover from a dead leg. In attack Wayne Rooney will start though Eriksson admitted he may have to warn the tyro about his temperament. But as Eriksson added: "He has to learn but he's 17. You can't expect a 17-year-old boy to be a young man and be perfect in everything." England's previous teenage starlet, Joe Cole, also drew praise though he may have to wait to be a regular as the England coach intimated he sees Cole as Scholes' understudy. "I think it's his best position," said Eriksson of the 'hole'. "At West Ham this season he's played right, left and central - everywhere in a straight 4-4-2. That's been very good for him. He is one of the biggest talents we have."

Eriksson's pleasure at several individual performances was matched by his relief at the collective good humour of the Walkers Stadium crowd. "The crowd was beautiful to see," he said. "I couldn't see anything bad at all. I'm very happy about that, happy for them and for us. It needs to be kept going."