James Lawton: Eriksson the pragmatist has a team-building block

Design has been less than grand but Sven may yet have last laugh
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The Independent Football

However strongly they feel about the parody of preparation for which he so lightly takes responsibility, it is that time again when critics of Sven Goran Eriksson take up what they no doubt consider a necessarily reserved position.

However strongly they feel about the parody of preparation for which he so lightly takes responsibility, it is that time again when critics of Sven Goran Eriksson take up what they no doubt consider a necessarily reserved position.

This is despite his decision to make a mockery of a two-year build-up to the European Championship, which began to unfold here yesterday and tonight takes the England coach's quite profoundly reshaped team into an opening game with France, reigning champions and maybe the most smoothly integrated outfit in all of football. The critical waiting game is also more than a little astounding for other reasons, not least that he has not exactly built a fortress in the face of those who would wish to bring him down.

Caught out both by the paparazzi - when he coldly negotiated with the chequebook-wielding minions of Roman Abramovich - and the kiss-and-tell instincts of the B-list TV celebrity girl outside whose bedroom door he left his elevated shoes, Mr Invulnerable Sven is certainly not. So why does he sail through the kind of crises which in some ways dwarf those of his hapless predecessors Graham Taylor, Glenn Hoddle and Kevin Keegan?

It is quite simply because he learned in his trophy-winning progress from Sweden through Portugal and Italy the mechanics of football survival. Eriksson doesn't do innovation or inspiration or any other kind of technical or emotional commitment. He doesn't develop a team like the great managers of the past; he doesn't fine-tune his men on the long trek to the mountain top. No, he picks the best players - with the exception of maybe Jermain Defoe, who could reasonably claim to be unjustly kicking his heels on some exotic beach - and creates arguably the most comfortably organised club in all of sport.

The players love him, and for evidence of this we don't need to dwell on the rent-a-quote tendencies of Gary Neville or the effusions of favourite son David Beckham. Earlier this week Paul Scholes, for whom delivering an opinion on anything is roughly akin to donating several pints of blood, was on the record with his devotion to the coach who in the last few weeks has turned the England midfield in which the Manchester United man is by far the most consistent performer into a place of chance and speculation.

Scholes, discussing the scoring block for England which is now stretching into its fourth year, said: "There are times in your career when you definitely need the support of your manager. There has never been anybody in football who hasn't suffered times of doubt. Sven has been brilliant for me, talking on my behalf and always impressing on me that I'm part of his plans. I hope I can pay him back."

In his first foray into the management of a national team, Eriksson grasped immediately the fundamental need for such a comfy, self-congratulating ship. Unlike the cranky Hoddle, the misplaced Taylor and the emotionally intense Keegan, Eriksson has avoided the big mistake. If his dalliances with his compatriot Ulrika and his heavy flirtation with Abramovich brought unwelcome publicity, they were simply unwise rather than terminal gaffes. If he has exposed himself as an opportunist for whom big money is far more persuasive than big loyalty, he has also played the football odds with the most knowing of eyes.

For his critics, Eriksson's great crime is not questionable ethics but virtually non-existent adherence to the classic values of developing a team. In their eyes, his inadequacies in the last big campaign - the World Cup finals in Japan - were so profound they wiped away all the credit built up in his superb rescuing of the drive to qualify, one that the then technical director of the Football Association, Howard Wilkinson, agreed might well have been aborted in favour of building for the future.

In Eriksson the FA found the complete antithesis to such a concept. Eriksson doesn't do building. He does pragmatism - and to an extraordinary degree. He doesn't shape a team. He gathers together - with a degree of soundness that such as Taylor (Gordon Cowans above Paul Gascoigne), Glenn Hoddle (Matt Le Tissier against the disbelieving Italians at Wembley) and Kevin Keegan (Andy Cole for Michael Owen in Paris) never began to display - its basic components and goes from game to game. Result: a competitive record, against mostly inferior opposition, which glows on the page but is rendered less impressive when you get to the fine detail - desperately incoherent performances against the likes of Greece (hail the saviour Beckham), Macedonia, Slovakia and Turkey at Sunderland (thank God for the prodigy Rooney) and, worst of all, a pathetic abdication of combative values against Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final.

Ultimately, England were pitiful against Brazil after scraping the barrel in their opening game against Sweden. Their best performance in the Far East, by some distance, was the group victory over Argen-tina, but even then the more scrupulous critics noted that Juan Sebastian Veron had made a joke of his reputation as one of the great midfielders, and that England's rhythm owed much to the arrival of a naturally left-sided player in Trevor Sinclair when Owen Hargreaves was injured early in the game.

Observing the meltdown against Brazil, World Cup winner George Cohen said: "It was an amazingly weak effort; I can only conclude Dave Sexton, one of the best football judges in the world, who was sitting on the sidelines, was not consulted. Had he been, he would surely have pointed that you need a little shape - and people who are prepared to do something."

Out of deference to his blood pressure, Cohen has not been consulted on the Eriksson decision to bring in an entirely new system of midfield play two weeks before the start of the second most important tournament in all of football - and then give it just 45 minutes of development against Iceland. Sir Alf Ramsey settled on his World Cup-winning formula of wingless wonders eight months before the big kick-off in 1966. Though put in wraps until the knockout stages of the finals, Ramsey's all-conquering method was utterly familiar to all his players. The proving point had come in Madrid the previous winter, when a fine Spanish team were beaten 2-0. Afterwards, the Spanish coach said: "Playing like that, England would have beaten anyone in the world."

No one has said anything remotely so flattering about the England team performing at the Estadio da Luz tonight. What has to be allowed is that in players such as Steven Gerrard, Owen, Scholes, Rooney and maybe a reactivated Beckham, Eriksson's team have the capacity to beat anyone on their day. Not as a well-prepared unit but as a collection of talented players who want to do well for themselves - and a coach who understands the vital truth that the first essential of being a winner is to have those players on your side. It is this possibility that no doubt restrains the critics. His preparation may have been a joke but, as always, he has been canny enough to stay around for the possibility of a last laugh.