Time the enemy as Eriksson seeks to crack enigma code

The road to Japan and Korea: Swedes leave coach with a defensive dilemma
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The Independent Online

This England become more Swedish, more enigmatic, more difficult to fathom, by the minute. Last month, David Beckham's free-kick launched England into the World Cup finals and no one cared to pick over the details too carefully. Yesterday, Beckham scored again, from the penalty spot, but the tapestry demanded more acute examination. As Sven Goran Eriksson will know well enough by now, England's prospects for major championships have a growth force all of their own, entirely independent of results or potential.

By late May, buoyed by replays of Germany's defeat and the media's patriot games, expectations will have soared beyond realism and England will be favourites for the trophy. Yesterday, a football match was wrapped up in an afternoon of Swedish tributes, from Sven to Abba. The Swedes are hardly the ideal candidates for a beauty contest, but you could tell it was all in good fun because the Old Trafford crowd even clapped the Swedish national anthem.

Come the late spring, England could well find themselves up against the Swedes in a very different climate and for much higher stakes. No favours will be asked or given then. The Swedes, rarely disgraced at major tournaments, yesterday provided a fair measure of England's present standing. After the eccentricities of the 2001 campaign – the euphoria and the despair – came a dose of hard-headed mediocrity. Not good, not bad. Very Swedish, in fact.

On the balance of chances, England deserved more than a 1-1 draw, as the Swedish coach, Lars Lagerback, acknowledged, but the well-marshalled visitors did not deserve to leave as losers either. Asked if he thought England too predictable, Lagerback was diplomacy itself. "They use two central midfielders, who try to go forward, and with two on the wings, too, they are hard to cope with. I don't think they are so predictable, no."

But, he added, the two teams knew pretty well how the other would play, which did not help the overall quality of the spectacle. A draw was a very typical Anglo-Scandinavian compromise, the ideal outcome for the neutrals and Eriksson, who will pencil in some new names – Danny Murphy, Trevor Sinclair and, at a pinch, the over-eager Kevin Phillips – and ink over some old ones – Darren Anderton and Teddy Sheringham – as he continues his research into a World Cup squad. Discerning real nuggets from the shale of a patchily competitive friendly required a microscope.

"It was very nice to play against my own country and, as always, it was very difficult," said the England coach. "You take two or three touches on the ball and there are always three or four yellow shirts around you. You can see why they are in the World Cup."

Sinclair, Phillips and Murphy all gained honourable mentions in post-match dispatches. "It was good to see that those new players who had just put on an England shirt can stand the pressure," said Eriksson. Murphy's debut, in fact, was startlingly mature. Within minutes of coming on in the second half, he had knitted together England's best move, curled a shot towards the far corner which Magnus Kihlstedt, Sweden's substitute goalkeeper, did well to parry and brought such a flurry of activity to the hitherto rather pedestrian England midfield that his World Cup credentials now seemed gilt-edged. Anderton, too, rangy and comfortable with the ball in tight corners, also lent an air of composure to England's approach play. But it was Sheringham who pumped oxygen into the body, exploiting the space, linking slickly with Murphy and posing a series of new questions to Sweden's central defence. "Sheringham is always Sheringham," Eriksson added. "If he plays like we know he can, he is a big, big candidate for the squad, but that is six months on and a lot can happen. But it was good, you always learn something."

England were hampered by the absence of Michael Owen, but then Sweden were missing their main striker, Henrik Larsson, too. Eriksson chose not to risk Owen yesterday morning. "If it had been the World Cup final I would have played him, but I told him that it was better for him, for me and for England. I would like to see him stay fit for the rest of the season."

In Owen's absence, Phillips was handed a belated chance to stake a World Cup claim and did his cause no harm. In speed of thought and deed, he is a replica of Owen, only his final touch let him down. Of equal significance to Eriksson was the form of his regulars. Rio Ferdinand, for one, has now established himself as Eriksson's first-choice centre-back, but has yet to transfer his sleek displays for club into true command for his country.

Quietly, against an attack which had averaged just under two goals a game in qualification, Ferdinand needed to affirm his class. Partnered for the first time under Eriksson by the dependable Gareth Southgate, he survived an edgy opening to settle into the sort of rhythm familiar to Leeds fans. Ferdinand's comfort on the ball is his great strength, but his uncertainty in the tackle has been the more dominant feature of his England tenure. Too often, his decision-making is hesitant, his balance surprisingly shaky.

On the stroke of half-time, though, it was Ferdinand's last-ditch challenge on Magnus Svensson which saved England from further indignity after Hakan Mild had equalised Beckham's penalty. More worrying was the lack of communication with Southgate and, a greater puzzle, with his own club goalkeeper, Nigel Martyn. These are details Eriksson needs to sort out. And time is tight. Italy, one of England's pre-World Cup opponents, will present different problems from the industrious Swedes, but rarely give friendlies their full attention. So Eriksson will largely have to rely on club form and continue his uncomplicated policy of matching players to their club roles.

"I have the same problem as all other national managers," explained Eriksson. "No, we do not have enough matches to prepare, but that's life. That's the job." For Eriksson, the tributes are over, the real work is just beginning.