Rio the smooth operator passes the keepball message

Eriksson's dream back-four put the emphasis on poise and pace rather than sheer power
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Wasn't there another England player who got into a bit of a scrape? Something about a drugs test? One of David Beckham's great virtues, Sven Goran Eriksson pointed out in Baku the day before the 1-0 victory over Azerbaijan, is that "he takes the pressure off other players".

Wasn't there another England player who got into a bit of a scrape? Something about a drugs test? One of David Beckham's great virtues, Sven Goran Eriksson pointed out in Baku the day before the 1-0 victory over Azerbaijan, is that "he takes the pressure off other players".

So Rio Ferdinand has eased himself back into international football over the past eight days as smoothly and quietly as if the dramas of a year ago had never happened. While England's captain was making yet another splash, soaking himself in the process, his former Manchester United colleague cleared two hurdles like a steeplechaser, not so much as wetting his heel in the water. Now for the next one: helping bring about nothing less than a transformation in the way English defenders play.

Since four men in a line at the back became the norm some 40 years ago, replacing the old WM formation, British teams have usually tried to pair a traditional strongman - big, powerful and good in the air - with a more calculating reader of the game able to pass the ball from A to B with a degree of proficiency. Jack Charlton plus Bobby Moore, say.

Once Franz Beckenbauer emerged as the definitive modern libero, a player skilful enough on the ball to operate in midfield but used instead to bring it out from the back, other countries began to seek an equivalent, largely in vain.

For England, Derby County's Colin Todd offered possibilities without ever achieving his full potential; at the 1990 World Cup, Bobby Robson was suddenly converted to a 3-5-2 formation using Mark Wright or - more surprisingly - Terry Butcher as a free man; later, Gareth Southgate, for all his intelligence, and caps, never quite made the role his own. Now, after an international absence of 14 months, there is Ferdinand again, offering the exciting possibility with his calm possession-based football of helping Eriksson convert the national team to a more forward-looking game.

"He's a modern central defender, not just strong and tall," Eriksson said at the storm-blown Tofikh Bakhramov Stadium as Wednesday night edged into Thursday morning. "He has pace, and can play football. You have traditionally given the ball to the full-backs and they start playing, but when you have Ferdinand he can bring it out as well from a central position. On Saturday [against Wales] and today he was coming forward on the right as well, which is very good. It's easier for the midfield, too, when they can't play the ball, just give it back to Rio and he starts play again. The dream is to have four good defenders who are all-round football players."

Eriksson is moving closer to that vision. Even Sol Campbell is looking to pass the ball out of defence rather than hoofing it long towards Emile Heskey's head. As for the full-backs, Ashley Cole, gaining in stature with every game, somehow manages to link well with each new partner dropped into the hole in front of him on the left, and Gary Neville is bright enough to appreciate the single most important lesson of successive quarter-final disappointments at major tournaments: if in doubt, pass the ball to someone wearing the same-coloured shirt.

Ferdinand is just happy to be back, appreciative of the support shown to him by his international and club managers, however misguided some felt it to have been. "You can see I'm enjoying playing football again," he said. "It's been a long time coming, and if people think I'm playing well, so be it. I wasn't stupid enough to expect that I would definitely do well and fit in, so it was all about preparation and focusing on coming back. Two managers showing that kind of confidence in putting you straight back in, that breeds confidence, and I hope I can keep repaying that trust."

Nicky Butt's excellence in front of the back division also contributed to a pair of clean sheets against admittedly undemanding opposition in Wales and Azerbaijan, as well as justifying his move away from Manchester United to find regular football again at Newcastle. His new team-mate Jermaine Jenas may have received understandably mixed reviews for his full international debut on Wednesday night, but his selection as a compromise candidate between the attacking Shaun Wright-Phillips and the defensive Owen Hargreaves was based on Eriksson's reasonable desire not to disrupt the new system of three strikers any more than was necessary.

Few people, including Eriksson and Wednesday's captain, Michael Owen, believe that the new attacking alignment, even if it essentially substitutes Wayne Rooney for Paul Scholes, would suffice against teams of the highest quality; a friendly away to Spain next month might prove the point. Owen does not quite seem to gel with Jermain Defoe, and it was significant that in his captain's press conference last Tuesday he described Rooney's best position as being second striker just behind the main man. The audience was left in no doubt who he felt that should be.

In terms of the group, Poland are emerging as the only threat of any sort, which makes England's recent 2-1 victory in Katowice all the more valuable, and the decision to play them at home in the final fixture next October all the wiser. Next up comes a double-header over Easter weekend (an unfortunate intrusion into the traditional British football calendar), against Northern Ireland at Old Trafford and then Azerbaijan at St James' Park.

Six more points should certainly result, though Poland ought to match that by beating the same two teams in reverse order. The Poles can then head the group by beating Azerbaijan in June, which should help ward off any complacency on England's part ahead of the emotionally charged trips to Cardiff and Belfast early next season.

Before any of that come friendlies against Spain and probably Holland at times in November and February when the leading clubs would have preferred their players to have two days at Champneys if anything. Eriksson let the cat out of the bag when he smiled: "We need money!"

It has come to that, though nobody should be greatly surprised. Colin Gibson, the Football Association's former director of communications, recently revealed that after succeeding Adam Crozier as chief executive, Mark Palios had to find £23 million in three weeks to save the organisation from bankruptcy.

So Madrid it is, on 17 November, when a certain D Beckham will doubtless find himself the centre of attention again; fit or not, captain or not, banned or not, about which senior FA figures are hardly unanimous.

As Eriksson said, Beckham takes the weight off the others "...and the manager". Whatever grumbles may occasionally be heard, they should all be suitably grateful.