Sven Goran Eriksson returned to his station in the stands this weekend delighted, yet a little perplexed, by the strange ways of English football. He has paid particular attention to Kevin Phillips, watched him countless times, yet is clearly unconvinced by the Sunderland striker's ability to transfer his goalscoring touch from League to international level. Phillips will be neither the first nor the last player to fall at that particular hurdle and there are those who believe fervently that he remains the most likely World Cup understudy to Michael Owen. How long can Eriksson wait?
Last Saturday, though, Eriksson watched a muddling, undistinguished game – he has seen plenty of those – at Villa Park between Aston Villa and Chelsea. The result was a draw, barely worth a few lines in the Swede's notebook. But that was in the days before tabloid headline writers had to conjure up some pun from the name of Darius Vassell.
Last Saturday, Vassell was largely anonymous in an anonymous sort of game; on Wednesday night in Amsterdam, he was electric, blithely unaware of the array of talent around him, utterly uncowed by the searching requirements of international football and so youthfully ignorant of the pressures that Eriksson might be tempted to wrap him in cotton wool until early June and then, in imitation of Emile Heskey's impact on the same country at Wembley and that of Owen in St Etienne, unleash him on Argentina without further complication. The last thing Vassell needs now is to feel like a fully-fledged international. None of his post-match utterances suggested any hint of ego.
The Amsterdam ArenA unearthed an unexpected jewel; it also highlighted some less than pure carat-gold defending. There is another aspect of the English way of football which will tax Eriksson over the coming months. Go back to Villa Park again and two 4-4-2 formations largely cancelling each other out. In the 63rd minute, on comes Gianfranco Zola and with his first touch sets up Frank Lampard for Chelsea's equaliser. Zola works his trade in exactly the same no man's land as Patrick Kluivert did for Holland on Wednesday and his movement, though slower now than when he first arrived at Stamford Bridge, still confuses English club defences.
At some point over the last few days, perhaps in a moment of reflection on the death of Nandor Hidegkuti, the great Hungarian who patented the role in the 1950s, Eriksson must have pondered why such a mature footballing nation has yet to understand the proper qualities of a withdrawn striking role. Liverpool have one of the most accomplished number 10s in the game, a player who was fashioned in the same Ajax academy as Dennis Bergkamp. But since arriving from Barcelona, Jari Litmanen has spent most of his time on the substitutes' bench, unable to make sense of the rigid patterns of Liverpool's system.
David Ginola, a natural in that position, has been coerced into playing on the left of midfield for much of his thwarted career in England. Paul Scholes, an intelligent and skilful player, was utterly confused by the demands of the role at Manchester United. Heavens above, we are so deprived of exponents of the art, of historical perspective, we have named the position after Teddy Sheringham, a contemporary player. Nearly 50 years from the day Billy Wright's England were mesmerised by Ferenc Puskas and Hidegkuti at Wembley, Patrick Kluivert was happily exploiting the same vacant spaces.
The significant teams in the Far East in June will each have a natural No 10. France have Zidane, Spain Morientes, Italy Totti, Argentina a revitalised Ortega. The concern for Eriksson will stem partly from the fact that Sheringham, an increasingly key player, will be 36 by the time of the World Cup, and partly that not six months before their date in Amsterdam, Patrick Kluivert had provided his own preview by tormenting England at White Hart Lane. No one, it seemed, had been listening in that lesson.
Though Eriksson reacted to his one defeat by augmenting his midfield, England's instinct is still to play in regimental lines. Kluivert's acute positioning, often down the inside-right channel, exposed that elementary geometry. Though slightly different in construction, Kluivert's goal might have reminded a few Liverpool players of Barcelona's equaliser, also scored by the Dutchman, at Anfield in the Champions' League late last year. Liverpool were given a second-half tutorial that night and only sheer strength of character, and the Dutch tendency to fall asleep on the job, hauled England back into contention in Amsterdam.
If England are to mount a serious challenge for the World Cup this summer, Eriksson has some education of his own to administer. Too often, Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell failed to take responsibility for Kluivert, preferring to stay in formation rather than step forward to cut down the space. It is an obvious and consistent failing. In the absence of a regular candidate for the holding role so deftly occupied by Dietmar Hamann for Liverpool, the centre-backs have to take charge.
Campbell has neither the confidence nor the speed of thought to do so; Ferdinand is also prone to indecision. When Gareth Southgate came on for the second half, Kluivert's influence waned noticeably. Southgate is a mobile and intelligent defender, the best in England at present, and it would be a genuine surprise if he did not start the next friendly, against Italy in Leeds, when England will be posed exactly the same questions by Francesco Totti.Reuse content