What's in a number? Plenty according to numerologists but it was the Eriksson-ologists attempting to read the runes when England's squad for Euro '2004 was confirmed last night and shirts numbers accorded.
David Beckham at 7, and Michael Owen at 10 was to be expected. A lot of replica-shirt purchasers would have been out of pocket and angry had it been otherwise. The significance for observers seeking an insight into Eriksson's plans was in the No 11 shirt.
Unlike some countries (France, for example, for whom Thierry Henry wears 12 or the alphabetically-numbered Argentinian 1978 World Cup squad with Ossie Ardiles at No 1) England tend to hand their probable team the numbers 1-11. With Steven Gerrard at 4 and Paul Scholes at 8 the number 11 shirt was the one reserved for the fourth midfielder, the man likely to fill the holding role. Last night, as against Japan on Tuesday night, it went to Frank Lampard. Butt is No 17.
Among the other 'reserves', Joe Cole retains 19, the number he chose at the World Cup because it was worn by Paul Gascoigne in 1990. Darius Vassell gets 23, expected to go to a goalkeeper but, because of Michael Jordan, it is now the fashion-conscious footballers' choice Beckham chose it at Real Madrid and Sol Campbell at Arsenal. Lampard is not yet guaranteed a place in the starting line-up against France on 13 June but the Chelsea midfielder is now clear favourite. Two years ago all but two of the XI which started England's World Cup campaign wore traditional 1-11 shirts and the inclusion of Owen Hargreaves (18) and Darius Vassell (20) owed much to injuries suffered by and Steven Gerrard (earmarked for No 4, before he was injured) and Robbie Fowler (9).
However, Eriksson said: "I have not made up my mind for the France match yet. It will be a big test for any holding player." The Chelsea player added much attacking brio to the team against Japan but Eriksson was not alone in noting he was a long way from the action when Japan levelled. The manager's requirements of his holding player were underlined when he dismissed a suggestion that Gerrard be given the role.
"When Gerrard goes forward, wooh, it is incredible," said Eriksson. "If he is the sitting midfielder he can more or less never go forward. I'm sure in the future he will be a sitting midfielder and a great one but to have his power going forward today and not use would be a pity." All of which suggests Butt, if he can get up to speed, could return. "We have 12 days' preparation and we'll see how Butt is looking." The Manchester United midfielder looked dejected when he heard of his omission but he will be consoled by the memory of the World Cup. In the quarter-final against Brazil his No 21 shirt was the only one not between 1-11.
Not that Butt is the only player struggling to raise a gallop. Wayne Rooney also looked short of sharpness. The coach was, though, less concerned than most at the way the team as a whole faded arguing they had practised intensively close to the game.
"In the World Cup we were brilliant in the first half but faded in the second. Ultimately that cost us. It is because in England we are playing too much football and I have been fighting for two years to do something about it a winter break. Hopefully it will come the season before the World Cup.
"But the fitness of the squad today is much better than two years ago. I am optimistic we will score goals in the second half in the Euro and play much better than we did in the World Cup. We have a good team, we are better than two years ago and we will be ready."
There are indications that Eriksson's diamond may not survive the Euro campaign. Eriksson admitted when set against a 3-5-2 system like Japan's it places a demanding workload on midfield and full-backs. Croatia, England's third group opponents, may operate such a system. "I wanted to do it against Japan because France play two central midfielders, then Pires and Zidane who come in from the flanks," said Eriksson. "I don't know if they will play like that against England but in the past they have."
Teams do evolve in tournaments, most evidently in England's most successful World Cups. In 1966 Alf Ramsey fielded three different wingers in the opening group matches, only reprising his now fabled 4-4-2 in the quarter-finals. In 1990 England opened with a leaden draw against the Republic of Ireland. Petitioned by senior players Robson drafted in Mark Wright in a sweeper system and England were unlucky not to make the final.
Injuries also change a coach's plans but Eriksson has been lucky so far though Beckham, Gary Neville and John Terry have what are described as minor injuries and may be rested for Sunday's match with Iceland.
Eriksson's only other concern is Rooney's temperament. The Everton striker lashed out at Shinji Ono after clashing late in the first half. "In an international he has at least a yellow card, at least, for that" said Eriksson. "I will talk to him about keeping calm."Reuse content