Slow coaches at the festival of speed

Lack of pace could prove to be England's downfall
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The Independent Online

Played two, won two. As England plodded into the second stage of the World Cup the words of Bill Shankly echoed through 40 years of hurt. "Pat Crerand is deceptive," the great man said. "He is slower than he looks." For Crerand, now read England.

Younger readers might find this hard to believe, but there was a time when Sven Goran Eriksson's midfield was regarded as one of the wonders of this World Cup. What more did you need when you had a Fab Four of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole was a pertinent question. The answer became increasingly apparent in the laboured victories over Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago: pace.

For all their talents, the parts are not making much of a whole, and this is partly because there is not a member of the quartet who could lose an opponent in a sprint. And in international football, speed has the value of precious stones.

His inability to go outside a full-back and leave him was a reason why Beckham had to cultivate the skill of swerving crosses round opponents, and it is not just because he favours his right foot that Cole's dribbles from the left tend to drift inwards. The pair, like Gerrard and Lampard, are quick in mind, but it is their team-mates at club level who provide the jet propulsion to make the most of their talents. England, sadly, are failing to reach top gear in their engine room largely because they have not got one.

But let us not dwell solely on the midfield; the lack of pace is a problem that runs (or strolls) through the team. Of the starting line-ups against Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago only Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole and Michael Owen have speed that would be considered exceptional for their positions. The first two partly explain why England have yet to concede in Germany - although the contribution of the relatively slow but superbly astute John Terry cannot be overlooked - and the third could prove to be the problem that holes Eriksson's campaign.

In the build-up to the Paraguay game, the England coach made a veiled criticism of Owen, saying that he needed to run into the right positions. To which the Newcastle United striker might have retorted: "At least I am running. Who else is?" To make the most of a 6ft 7in centre-forward you need him to be the more withdrawn striker, with a fleet-footed partner to chase the flick-ons. What happens when Peter Crouch becomes the furthest forward was all too apparent against Paraguay, when the South Americans' back four could push up a further 10 yards after Owen was substituted. Suddenly England were compressed into a state of impotency.

This is the dilemma facing Eriksson. If he plays the fit-again Wayne Rooney, who is made to play the withdrawn striker role, then Crouch's aerial supremacy will be for nought unless someone can accelerate from midfield to join him. Beckham, Lampard and Joe Cole are too slow to fulfil this role and Gerrard, as the predominantly deep-lying member of the quartet, is rarely far enough forward to get the chance. So if Owen is dropped to the bench, who will provide a speedy option for Crouch to aim for? On Thursday, belatedly, it was Aaron Lennon, whose pace hit Trinidad & Tobago like a Ferrari in a race of milk floats. The problem is that if he comes in on the right then Beckham has to be dropped or moved inside.

The England captain was nowhere near his best, but even then he provided passes that would have provided goals had Crouch and Owen hit the target, and it was his cross that finally broke the Caribbean resistance. Eriksson will not lightly jettison such a potent provider.

The conundrum for England is that if he drops Owen he might have to ditch one of Gerrard or Lampard too to accommodate Lennon, and that would require boldness that has not hitherto marked Eriksson's reign. Alternatively, the pre-tournament suggestions that England will walk this World Cup could prove accurate. They may have to.

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