Lampard's late elevation exposes indecision

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The Independent Football

Diamonds may be a girl's best friend but the fast accumulating evidence is that they are Sven Goran Eriksson's worst enemy.

Diamonds may be a girl's best friend but the fast accumulating evidence is that they are Sven Goran Eriksson's worst enemy.

England's debate over this football illiteracy of a tactical formation - which has somebody back, forward, right and left but no-one at the heart of affairs - has long been absurdly wasteful. But at the City of Manchester Stadium this week, where it was painfully clear that only one team, Japan, could possibly have been tutored by the brilliant Brazilian midfielder Zico - it took a turn that was in its way quite sinister.

What it came down to was that Frank Lampard, by some distance the outstanding English midfielder of this last season, was being assessed not on his own strengths but on another player's limitations. He was being judged in a role that defines an international footballer in such limited fashion it adds up to an insult to any well-rounded midfielder who understands the shifting demands of playing in that vital area of the game.

Nicky Butt is held up as the paragon of efficiency at the "base of the diamond", and was, we are now told, Eriksson's preferred option going into the final two games of what might be laughingly described as England's preparation for the European Championship. However, it seems that counter arguments from his coaching staff swayed his decision. If this is true - and anything and everything is believable in the conduct of England's international football these days - it is another reason to put our heads into our hands when we consider the potentially dire possibilities of the next few weeks.

Butt has his virtues of course, but the important question is the extent of their contribution to a fluent midfield in which individual responsibilities merge, as they have to do, in the communal effort. In effect Butt is a static presence when England are going forward with the ball. He sits back and waits for the breakdown. As somebody pointed out wryly on Tuesday, in the first 10 minutes against Japan Lampard had shot more - twice - than Butt had in his entire international career.

What happens when Butt sees that a team-mate has made a break and is in need of support, which could quite easily translate into a move that could open up the defence? Does he provide that support, confident that his well-drilled colleagues will cover him, as Lampard's nature insists that he must, or does he sit and wait to protect the back four? Butt sits, and any consistent study of his play tells you that it is as consistent with his playing personality as it is opposed to Lampard's. Football is a team game and the great trick, simple in theory but immensely demanding in practice, is to make it look as though you have more players on the field. Inevitably, a strictly shackled holding player means that you have less at precisely the moment when success demands that you have more. There were times this week when it appeared Zico's forces outnumbered Eriksson's by roughly two to one.

Butt is prized as a holding player. So too is Roy Keane, but think of the difference; think of Keane's willingness to go forward at the relevant moments, remember his performance in the Champions' League semi-final in Turin five years ago, when he carried Manchester United to the final in Barcelona by nothing less than invading the psyche of Juventus. Does Butt have a sliver of that potential? Of course not. Lampard may never be Keane, he may never exert that level of authority, but he does have talent and a wonderfully bold spirit. He can time a run with potency and vision, as he proved in some excellent European performances in the last few months.

Certainly it will be a great sadness if such a presence is sacrificed in some arid tactical discussion - which this week seemed to speak of nothing more eloquently than the fact that, despite Eriksson's assurances to the contrary, major uncertainties still linger so near to the tournament.

Lampard or Butt? In American football this would be described as a quarterback controversy. Here, it is something rather less stimulating. It is cruel evidence that, at the heart of their team, England still lack a clue about where they are going.