Player power persuades Eriksson to ditch trusted system against Wales
The three midfielders attended a private meeting that was expressly called by Eriksson before dinner at England's hotel in Hertfordshire on Tuesday. There is no suggestion that the three players themselves demanded to see the manager but it was they who suggested that, in the absence of Michael Owen for Saturday's World Cup qualifier, they should play with five in midfield behind Wayne Rooney.
The three at the meeting would provide the core of the midfield with Joe Cole on the left and Shaun Wright-Phillips on the right operating as two wingers supporting Rooney as they do for Didier Drogba or Hernan Crespo with Chelsea. The England manager has consulted his players before on major tactical changes and there was a feeling among senior players that major adjustments had to be made in the wake of the demoralising 4-1 friendly defeat away to Denmark last month.
The players are understood to have told Eriksson that the new formation would play to the strengths of Rooney and that any disadvantages in fielding only one out-and-out striker would be balanced by the goalscoring abilities of all five midfielders. All of them could be described as attacking players and it also gives Eriksson the chance to play Wright-Phillips on the right without contemplating dropping his captain, Beckham.
The formation was given a test run in training yesterday at Arsenal's complex in London Colney for 20 minutes. It would have signalled bad news for Jermain Defoe, who had originally hoped to play alongside Rooney in the absence of Owen, but the Tottenham Hotspur striker's poor performance against Denmark is understood to have contributed to the new formation.
Defoe has not inspired total confidence in some of his team-mates following the débâcle in Copenhagen and he will be the player who loses out should Eriksson decide to stick to the 4-5-1 formation at the Millennium Stadium. Owen will return for the second World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland in Belfast on 7 September and the side would then be likely to revert to a 4-4-2 formation.
The question of whether Eriksson, who will have contemplated changes to the formation before this week, is succumbing to the wishes of his players or plotting his own course is a particularly sensitive issue with the manager and, especially, with his captain, Beckham. Eriksson has come under intense recent pressure, even by his standards, in his professional and private life and will wish to be seen as a strong coach reacting to a bad defeat.
He has experimented, somewhat disastrously, with a similar kind of formation in a friendly against the Netherlands in February when he started with Wright-Phillips on the right, Rooney on the left and Owen as the lone striker. The goalless draw at Villa Park saw England make little tactical progress and will be remembered for Andy Johnson's forlorn debut when he came on in an unfamiliar right-wing position.
The England coach has shown his squad the video of the defeat against Denmark which Rooney described yesterday as "horrible". " I thought in the first half I couldn't get hold of the ball and was getting very frustrated," Rooney said. "And in the second half, it was just something I want to forget all about. It was a bad performance by the team. It was a horrible experience to have to sit through that [video]. I hope it never has to happen again. It was only a couple of weeks ago which makes it more important that we go out on Saturday and put in the sort of performance we need."
The shifting formations of England's midfield have been caused by two major factors among the players at Eriksson's disposal. Not only is he without a naturally left-sided player but there is no traditional holding midfielder to carry out the defensive duties in front of the back four.
Chelsea, English football's most successful exponents of the 4-5-1 system, have perhaps the best defensive midfielder in the business in Claude Makelele - allowing Lampard to make his trademark attacking runs. The concern for Eriksson in his own 4-5-1 formation, should he decide to play it, is that none of the three players who attended that meeting on Tuesday are naturally defensive operators.
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