James Lawton: Eriksson's tinkering cannot disguise lack of winning strategy

The worrying possibility is that Eriksson still doesn't quite know what he will do against the reigning champions
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The Independent Football

English football continues to give déjà vu a bad name. Consider the latest evidence: Bring on France, scream the headlines. Stick another flag on your car. "Shouldn't we be thinking of the final and winning it?" asked the Sky presenter of a panel for whom all things are suddenly bright and beautiful.

It has been said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. In our national game it is quite the opposite. It is the first resort not of scoundrels but professionally committed dreamers. This is why on all but one occasion - 38 years ago - we generally retire from major tournaments with the demeanour of whipped curs.

On Saturday, after the dismembering of an Iceland team so dire they would struggle for survival at the wrong end of the Nationwide First Division, hubris was rampant again. Why? Beyond the potential of players like Michael Owen, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard and David Beckham to find themselves operating in a team that has been magically made whole, there is simply no logical explanation.

The optimistic view has to be that Sven Goran Eriksson is playing some kind of mind game with his French counterpart, Jacques Santini. All other explanations for the bizarre fact that, in two full warm-up games, he played three of his four best midfielders in their most favoured positions, and drew great benefit from the adaptability of the fourth, the enduringly brilliant Scholes, for just 45 minutes renders England's preparation for the European Championships the football equivalent of a police investigation launched by Inspector Clouseau.

Mind game? Maybe, maybe not. The really worrying possibility is that Eriksson, after two years of preparation, still doesn't quite know what he will do against the reigning champions in Lisbon next Sunday night.

After Scholes and Frank Lampard had combined particularly well in the orthodox midfield four, Eriksson said that in due time, and after consultation with his coaches, he would decide between the paste diamond used so risibly against Japan last Tuesday and the formation which engulfed the Icelanders.

If Eriksson is playing poker with Santini, you have to ask why. The point is that preparing for a major tournament is not about cute games. It is about refining your team. Eriksson always tells us that he knows his best team, and this is generally in defence of the farcical scale of his substitutions in friendly internationals, which have always been seen by rather successful nations like Brazil, France, Italy and Germany as the chance to hone themselves for the time of true competition.

Now, days before taking on Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires, Eriksson talks about the value of tactical options. It is hard to know whom he is kidding, except maybe himself and those of his advisers who argued him out of his original belief that the trick of a coach was to get his best men out on the field and let the tactics shape themselves naturally around the strengths of those players.

Bill Shankly once said that the need for tactics was in inverse proportion to the scale of the talent at your disposal. Does England's available talent stack up convincingly against that of France? In ultimate terms, perhaps not, but in the likes of Owen, Gerrard, Scholes, the fast-developing Lampard and a Beckham who remembers what his strengths are, there is clearly a quorum of serious performers who have the potential to ambush the French - and, who knows, win the tournament.

When Sir Alf Ramsey, a full-back by trade, won the World Cup, his greatest dilemma was that he knew the value of width and natural wingers but that, after trying all of the most notable, he realised that to play one of them would have been to exclude a superior player, perhaps two. In the end he won the World Cup with hugely significant contributions from the non-wingers Alan Ball and Martin Peters. His challenge was to fit his tactics around his best players. In the last week we have had a dismaying debate about quite the opposite pursuit of finding players to fit the tactics.

Even now there is a powerful lobby for the return of Nicky Butt against the French. At whose expense? Probably Lampard, who set England in motion on Saturday with his sharp appreciation of Scholes' marvellously liberating touch. Even if you happen to believe that Butt's contribution would be valuable in stifling the French, while adding nothing to the ability of the England midfield to apply pressure to the ageing French defence, it is surely staggering that the question still lingers after the games which were supposed to represent final tuning.

If the last significant work-out had any great value it was to remind us of the sheer quality of Scholes, who despite his lack of goals for England over the last three years remains a superb international-class player. If Eriksson has got anything completely right, it is surely his continued faith in a man whose performance has always flown so far ahead of his image. Also heartening was Wayne Rooney's finishing and his apparently conscious effort to improve his discipline. His step, however, was at times still somewhat leaden. But then maybe he was merely recovering from that seven-mile training run. Sven says it will be fine on the day. Stranger things have happened. But perhaps not many.