The right result, the wrong way to play

Cole's deflected glory provides vital victory but questions remain over Eriksson's tactical nous as Rooney is cast adrift
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The Independent Football

As Eriksson put it after the tense victory: "In qualification games you want to play good football, but the most important thing is to win."

The build-up to the match was dominated by debate over England's change to 4-5-1 from the regular 4-4-2, with Wayne Rooney cast as the lone striker in the absence through suspension of his usual partner, Michael Owen. Did the new system work? It must have done; England won.

But, after another unexceptional England performance that at least was considerably better than their shambolic 4-1 defeat by Denmark in the friendly match last month, even Eriksson did not sound convinced. "The second half was OK until the last 20 minutes, when we lost the ball too easily and gave Wales the opportunity to knock long, high balls in for [John] Hartson. That's not good," the Swede said. "But we defended extremely well - and that's very positive. It's one more win and, if we go on like this, we will win the group."

As for the 4-5-1 system, Eriksson said: "Sometimes I think we can use it." Owen is available to face Northern Ireland in Belfast on Wednesday in the next qualifier, so there will be no need to use it then. "I hope we can play better on Wednesday for all 90 minutes... but three points are absolutely vital for us," Eriksson said.

Much was made of the new formation giving Shaun Wright-Phillips a chance to show what he can do wide on the right of midfield, with Joe Cole operating on the left. But in the first half the supposed wide players spent much time moving inside, as Rooney, after one stinging early shot, dropped deep and turned provider. All very strange, all very ineffective.

David Beckham, ousted from the right wing and given a deep-lying central- midfield role, did some of his best work after half-time with passes that bore his trademark, one of them releasing Wright-Phillips to cross for Joe Cole to score a goal that offers a misleading impression of another peripheral performance from the Chelsea midfielder.

Beckham put his finger on the real point in a match in which England, on paper, had vastly superior qualities. "It doesn't matter about systems, you've still got to perform," he said, and highlighted a moment in the first half when England's goalkeeper, Paul Robinson, did perform, pulling off a fine one-handed save to keep out a header from Wales's troublesome centre-forward Hartson. "The lads were full of thanks to Robbo at half-time," he said.

John Toshack, whose Wales side proved very stubborn opponents, described it as the save of the match. Had Hartson scored then, having to chase the game would have been a real test of Eriksson's new system, a test that the Welsh would have enjoyed watching.