The midfield of nightmares haunts again

Axis of Gerrard and Lampard the stumbling block
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The Independent Football

Sven Goran Eriksson managed to reduce a friendly with Holland to one of the most soporific of his 67 matches in charge of England. His successor would happily settle for a quiet night against old adversaries in Amsterdam on 15 November, but can hardly afford the sort of tactical failure that cost points in Zagreb and put Villa Park to sleep back in February 2005.

On that dreary, goalless night in the Midlands, Eriksson (doubtless after consultation with his assistant, Steve McClaren) opted for a 4-3-3 formation with Shaun Wright-Phillips and Wayne Rooney out wide on either side of Michael Owen. Wright-Phillips missed a couple of the only scoring chances early on and Rooney was marooned and miserable, as he always has been when filling that role for club or country. Both went off after an hour, to allow international debuts to Stewart Downing and Andy Johnson, but the latter was also left stranded in a wide position and made only one further appearance in the remaining 16 months of Eriksson's reign. So did 4-3-3, in the ghastly 1-0 defeat by Northern Ireland (with Rooney again on the left).

Johnson, having faded from Eriksson's view in the Championship, has made an encouraging return to the Premiership with Everton, improving his credentials to the point where a proper examination is now due in Holland. Wright-Phillips and Aaron Lennon, injured when he might have been given a chance in Croatia, will feel the same, though they remain rivals rather than prospective team-mates.

The strong suggestion after Wednesday was that but for Steven Gerrard's suspension and injuries such as Lennon's, 3-5-2 would not have been tried for such a testing and important game; as it never should have been without a dry run. Should both players be available next month, though, with Joe Cole fit as well, McClaren will find himself faced with a familiar set of problems.

Having solved one by dispensing with David Beckham (whose popularity has shot up since Wednesday, though he is still not playing for Real Madrid), he still faces a familiar midfield conundrum. Either Gerrard fills in on the wing again or Lennon's much-needed pace is employed and the Liverpool man moves to his preferred position inside, reactivating the old debate about whether he can function alongside Frank Lampard. Meanwhile, neither Michael Carrick in three games nor Scott Parker in one have been able to press their claims when returning after long absences; Owen Hargreaves will not be ready until the new year.

What else might McClaren and Terry Venables have in mind? Cole's return to fitness prompts the possibility of accommodating him in his favourite position just behind two strikers; yet who if anyone then fills the hole on the left that Chelsea's mercurial young talent was supposed to have plugged for good before a fitful World Cup? And would not a Cole in the hole cut down just the space that Rooney likes to drop off into? Sam Allardyce and Trevor Francis were among the voices suggesting that Rooney should have been left out altogether in Zagreb, though as it transpired he did more to justify a place than Peter Crouch.

There will be a clamour for Theo Walcott, though the choice of position and partner for him even as a substitute would need careful consideration.

For once, an England manager would seem to have his hands full between engagements. He must also clasp them together in prayer, for co-operation from leading clubs as yet another international week looms to break up the domestic season.