England's midfield lost in a miasma of doubt

Why did Joe Cole survive? Because of one moment of redemption?
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The Independent Football

No one did this more acutely than the beaten Welsh manager, John Toshack, who in an aside more devastating than anything we had seen on the field said that while England had made acceptable progress along the road to next summer's World Cup finals they had to improve sharply to have any kind of impact on the big show.

Toshack, who doggedly refused to be appointed the latest critic of the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, merely offered his old pro's opinion that England were still some way short of the world's top four to six nations. This brought us back to that big question : what exactly is on offer from a team constantly touted as one of the most individually talented in the international game?

A familiar product, you have to say. It is an illusion and if Beckham's performance was England's most impressive - at least when you set aside a Gordon Banksesque save from John Hartson by Paul Robinson and the inevitable if spasmodic brilliance of Wayne Rooney - he was also the author of the most sweeping departure from reality. "I'm not a Claude Makelele-type player," the England captain said before the match, "but I can play that role."

When he is free from the trenches, Beckham's delivery of the ball remains exquisite, but how often do you enjoy such luxury at the highest level of the game? If Beckham can perform the Makelele role when it matters, against opposition somewhat superior to a Welsh side which, when you think of the likes of Charles and Allchurch and Cliff Jones, represents nothing so much as a sad mutation of national genealogy, we have to consider a myriad of bizarre possibilities. Maybe Jordan should tackle Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire. Her chances would be at least equal to Beckham's in his task of performing Makelele style seek-and-destroy.

Can Beckham hold the centre in a World Cup? Let's get serious. Can clay court players rip up Wimbledon? Can sprinters win the Derby? Beckham had a role of convenience on Saturday and because of his skills he made the most of it. But where did it truly carry England, and what sense did it make of last week's pantomime of "player consultation?" Yes, winning qualifying games is vitally important, but so is building a team, making sense of what you have at your disposal, and just as disconcerting as Beckham's self-appointment as a defensive midfield hard man were some other pre-match comments from Graham Taylor, one of that small division of England coaches who, for varying reasons, failed to harness the national resources.

Of the reversion to 4-5-1 after the Copenhagen catastrophe, Taylor said, "Perhaps next summer in Germany England may just be thanking Denmark for making them have a rethink. At least it will not be as late as Sir Alf Ramsey in 1966 when England started with wingers and ended up winning the World Cup without them."

This is a travesty of what happened when the nation won its one and only World Cup. Ramsey, a full-back who knew the value of width, gave the wingers - Terry Paine and John Connelly - a last chance to prove that their specialist gifts could outweigh the superior all-round ability of Alan Ball and Martin Peters. The wingers failed. So Ramsey went back to a carefully crafted Plan B - one he had unveiled eight months earlier in Madrid, when a Spanish team were destroyed and their coach announced, "Playing like that, England could beat any team in the world." For a point of historic comparison, we have to travel back to Denmark just a few weeks ago. There, you wouldn't have backed England to beat a Heligoland Select.

No apologies are offered for going back into the past - if you don't understand what happened then, how are you going to have a clue about the future? In his temperate way, Toshack - who produced an infinitely stronger challenge to the one that was made by Wales at Old Trafford without being able to disguise the extreme paucity of the talent at his disposal - went to the heart of the Eriksson problem. England know how to get to the ball, but what do they do when the serious dancers get down to business. They soon enough join the spectators.

Nothing against Wales separated us from the likelihood of it happening a third straight time under Eriksson at a major tournament.

It was another occasion when the coach seemed to be doing nothing so much as waging war on the psychology of some of the potentially strongest elements in his World Cup challenge. Shaun Wright-Phillips was withdrawn with 22 minutes to go, another blow to his sense of belonging. Why did Joe Cole survive? Because of his one moment of redemption when his deflected shot - from Wright-Phillips' perfect pass - flew beyond Danny Coyne? There could have been no other reason. Rooney finished another international game besieged by frustration. He was pushed to the right after initially being asked to take on the Welsh defence alone. No matter that he brought from Coyne a brilliant save of another sublime offering.

Apart from Beckham's passing in the space inevitably bequeathed to him by Welsh deficiencies, England's midfield once again was a miasma of doubt. Steve Gerrard was ineffectual to the point of embarrassment. So was Frank Lampard. Playing as they did in Copenhagen with a nuts-and-bolts character like Thomas Gravesen busying himself of winning and moving the ball, Denmark would probably have put five past Wales. England got by with a streaky one. It was a relief more than a triumph.

Once again, England bear down on the Ball. But for what? Another night, you have to fear, of tongue-tied irrelevance when the music plays.