Three into two will not go, but three into three will. A smart man, that Sven Goran Eriksson. Faced with the question of whether to leave out Michael Owen or Jermain Defoe as he pondered a strike partner for Wayne Rooney, the England coach has been toying with the idea of playing all three against Wales in tomorrow's World Cup qualifying match at Old Trafford.
Owen played a full part in yesterday's training session at Carrington, showing no ill effects from the back injury that saw him substituted playing for Real Madrid at the weekend. With Wayne Rooney also back in the squad having recovered from the foot injury he suffered during Euro 2004, and certain to play, it had seemed that Eriksson would have to drop Defoe, who capped a fine display with an excellent goal in the last World Cup qualifier, away to Poland last month.
However, in training this week Eriksson has been experimenting with all three strikers in the team. The most likely formation would see Rooney play "in the hole" behind Owen and Defoe, a variation on the diamond midfield shape that Eriksson has often deployed. This would probably involve Frank Lampard switching to the wide role on the left, David Beckham playing on the right and Nicky Butt taking the holding role in the middle.
Eriksson insisted last week that he had not made up his mind about his line-up, saying that he wanted to see the squad train first. However, he did appear to dismiss the idea of playing Rooney, Owen and Defoe, suggesting that when he had used the system before it had worked only because two of the strikers played out wide.
"I've done it in club football because it's a very good system with three central midfielders," he said. "But Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and Jermain Defoe - who's going out to the left? No one." Significantly, however, when asked if there might be a way of accommodating all three strikers by playing Rooney at the top of a midfield diamond, he replied: "That could be an option."
Defoe confirmed yesterday that the formation had been used in training, although he stressed: "It's never the same in a training match. It's always going to be different in a game. But if it happens it's something I would really look forward to. Wayne's a player who likes to come short, get on the ball and make things happen. He's similar to Paul Scholes in the way he gets on the ball and creates things out of nothing. He's a great player. Michael and I like to get in behind. We try to play on the shoulder."
Because of their similar styles, Defoe, who celebrated his 22nd birthday yesterday, had not expected to be selected alongside Owen, although in Rooney's absence the pair played together in Katowice last month.
"I just thought I would have to be patient," Defoe said. "But obviously the Poland game was great. I thought it worked. We linked up well. It helps when you're playing with great players. You feel confident in the players you've got around you. You know if you make runs you're going to get the ball."
David James, who is likely to remain on the substitutes' bench after losing the goalkeeper's jersey to Paul Robinson, missed training yesterday because of fluid on the knee but is expected to train today.
* The Wales midfielder Jason Koumas, who had been struggling with an ankle injury, has been declared fit for tomorrow's game after successfully coming through training yesterday. The West Bromwich Albion player could line up in a five-man midfield.