No system, no spirit: Sven's men in a world of doubters
England over the threshold - but a daunting summer beckons
Sunday 09 October 2005
The rest of us will require some convincing after this fourth in a saga of depressing displays against opposition that, on all previous evidence, should have lined up, legs bound and throats bared for the kill, that New Sven is much altered from the man who stood bemused and confused after that horror at Windsor Park. If, as he claimed after this, that he was "very happy with the boys' performance", then he is easily satisfied or believes that we will all be deceived by the spin he placed on yesterday's events.
The second-half banishment of his captain, back on familiar terrain in royal David's city, unjustified or not, will no doubt provide a welcome distraction when his perennial critics would otherwise be rounding on him soundly once more.
True, his England have qualifiedbefore Wednesday night's group finale against Poland, but though this victory will be received as a welcome antidote to the toxin which invaded his team's system against Northern Ireland he will recognise that, with Germany 2006 in mind, that this is nothing more than "the end of the beginning".
The prospect of doing battle with Brazil, Argentina, and any manner of potentially potent European sides in Germany next June is not just a challenging one but currently an unnerving one. Yesterday attested to that.
Earlier in the afternoon, a weakened Wales's dispatch of Lawrie Sanchez's team at Windsor Park had confirmed just how desperately insipid England werelast month. At least John Toshack's team employed two strikers. Eriksson has had time to reflect on the wisdom of his 4-5-1 system there (or call it 4-3-3, if you prefer, with Wayne Rooney wide), with that perverse "quarterback" role for Beckham, and here he returned to a strategy that all players are familiar with, though the spectacle of that cloud-gazer Peter Crouch in an England shirt in a competitive match was not something most of us would have ever conceived as a sophisticated philosophy in World Cup football.
Indeed, to suggest a year ago that the Southampton striker would become an adopted Scouser and be here as a replacement for Rooney would have been risible. Probably even in Crouch's own household. Even now, on recent form, some of us were somewhat bemused by his selection in tandem with Michael Owen. As the more mischievous have been asking all week, how does a 6ft 7in player who cannot head the ball and has not scored for his club find himself in the England team? The reality was that he commended himself to Eriksson as a player who could offer a contribution to Plan C or D on some future occasion. Maybe in times of desperation against the élite, or against a weak rearguard.
The bizarre truth is that the Liverpool import is actually more proficient with the ball on the ground than in the air, and he will not have disillusioned Eriksson as to his potential. Crouch refused to live down to his name. Indeed, for the most part, he stood tall. Unfortunately, once again he failed to satisfy a striker's prerequisite, which is to score.
Still, at least Crouch was a significant extra in the incident that yielded the first- half penalty, converted by Frank Lampard, which secured the game for England. That should have heralded a period of relative freedom for Eriksson's men to exhibit a finesse and vision that few of yesterday's rivals could match. Instead, those old self-doubts appeared, intensified, and by the second period were positively overwhelming. After the break, a definite sense of unease pervaded the England ranks. It was akin to the exhibition against Wales a month ago all over again.
Suddenly, the England rearguard, who had enjoyed a relatively undisturbed first half, had to produce their defensive credentials. Hitherto, there had been no real opportunity to discern whether John Terry and Sol Campbell at centre-back would prove as complementary as Eriksson imagined when he astonished everyone by casting Rio Ferdinand aside.
It had been a rare act of defiance against the England dressing room's ruling class, though whether the coach was merely asserting himself as Eriksson the Action Man - always a dangerous policy for a coach - or truly recognising his club form had been errant was not evident. Or maybe it had been, as one of Eriksson's predecessors, Glenn Hoddle, had interpreted the move, simply a tactical decision, with Terry and Campbell deployed specifically to negate Austria's lanky strikers.
Of course, England may have lived to regret the absence of the ball-playing Manchester United defender. But Eriksson could be reassured that in Terry, at least, he had a vastly improved performer, one blessed with ever-enhanced passing skills, as he demonstrated in the first half.
As for his affinity with Campbell, that will remain an argument for the future. It became academic when Ferdinand replaced the injured Campbell to ensure that at last we had a Manchester United man on the field, a former Old Trafford icon having by then departed ignominiously. The priority then became protection of England's slender advantage.
They did so narrowly, though their coach will be left to reflect on a week in which he has finally talked the talk. But can England walk the World Cup walk?
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