Graeme Le Saux: Losing the plot

Sven Goran Eriksson is in danger of 'losing' the dressing-room, just as Glenn Hoddle did after the 1998 World Cup - to the author's regret
Click to follow

When it comes to England, expectations are often unrealistic but that sunny evening it seemed reasonable to expect great things from as talented a group of footballers as England have had for a long time. Three matches and two defeats later, questions are understandably being asked about the stewardship of Sven Goran Eriksson; about whether he is able to lead England to winning the World Cup.

In the aftermath of being beaten by a team that rank four above Barbados, there is an obvious conflict between what we expect, and what is being delivered. This is a team which could have won the European Championships if Wayne Rooney had not been injured. Now I wonder what has happened to Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Rooney even? The obvious issue as an ex-player is that these individuals seem to lack a platform to show their real ability. The balance of positional play is completely gone.

We are left with a team that is unrecognisable for its lack of fluency, togetherness and individual inspiration from that we have got used to seeing from England. If someone had told me, after we had beaten Poland last season with confidence and togetherness, that we would be five points behind Poland with two games to go I'd have laughed at them. But we've been a shadow of ourselves in the last three games.

Within a month there has been a huge shift in climate and you have to look at the management team and their responsibility for it. The lack of understanding being transmitted from the training field to the match itself has to be my greatest concern. These guys work together and prepare together yet seem so fragile when things don't go as they expect. If there is a problem that needs solving they seem unable to use their collective knowledge and the playing system to do so.

For me there are parallels to the situation that developed under Glenn Hoddle after France 1998. We had had a frustrating World Cup in terms of where we had got to, being knocked out in the second round, but we had played well most of the time and had reason to be optimistic about the team's development. Yet it was very obvious when we regrouped for the next European Championship qualifiers that during the summer Glenn had managed to lose the players' confidence.

His book - a World Cup diary which betrayed dressing-room confidences - had a lot to do with it. There were also important players, like Tony Adams and Paul Ince, who were getting older. It can be difficult to manage that transition within a team and that was a failing of his. We subsequently lost to Sweden which makes me anxious as an England supporter because the body language on Wednesday night, and lack of communication between what the coaching staff expect and what the players are delivering, has a similar feel to it.

Once players question what the manager is telling them, the mood can become negative and disjointed. Cynicism creeps in especially at international level where players are drawn from different backgrounds. People become more withdrawn and maybe start thinking more about themselves. Once five or six are doing that it is difficult to stop.

Fans will say it should not matter who the manager is, if you are playing for England you should be committed to the shirt regardless. I don't think that is the issue. I don't believe players are not trying, there just doesn't seem to be any co-ordination. You need a relationship with the players around you to get the best out of each other and have an understanding that allows you to play with freedom. In Belfast too many seemed to be playing unknown roles.

When a footballer begins to doubt, he tends to hold back to protect himself. Instead of making that supporting run, the one that commits you forward, you hold back to ensure your position is not exposed.

You could see players on Wednesday arriving in situations too late, not running those extra yards because they felt isolated, or believed it would be a wasted effort. That is so damaging in terms of what can happen and it resulted in Northern Ireland scoring. There was a lack of purpose in passing the ball out and we lost it. Then there was no pressure on Steven Davis when he made his pass. David Beckham just ambled towards him as if he was not sure it was his responsibility. Then lethargic defending from Rio Ferdinand allowed David Healy onside and unmarked. With Ashley Cole drawn forward towards Davis, Healy had time to take a touch and still have a free shot at goal. The tempo and strategy of the game never felt right and ultimately the management have to take responsibility.

Having said that I don't think sacking Eriksson is the solution. In a World Cup year that is not a viable option - and who are you going to replace him with? The only way to move forward is for the players and staff to wipe the slate clean and try to use Wednesday night to launch a new beginning.

One requirement is to uncomplicate the system which the team are playing. People say systems don't win games, players do, but tactics have a huge part to play in success.

If things are going badly you should be able to fall back on the system to be solid and secure. This is especially so in international football where there are few chances and players have to be more tactically aware. Maybe the reason we collapsed entirely in Denmark after we conceded was that we did not have the system to fall back on.

On Wednesday we just needed to match Northern Ireland's system, which was 4-4-2. It is fair to say, man against man, every England player is better than his Northern Ireland counterpart. Playing for Arsenal, Ashley Cole, for example, deals with better players than Keith Gillespie week in, week out. You should therefore be able to assume you will win the individual battles, and so assume you will win the game.

Instead, Eriksson changed the system and the personnel. Is he trying to evolve a formation around the people he wants in a team, rather than picking the best player in each position to play that position? If you want a holding midfielder then play the best one, do not try to make an attacking midfielder a holding player. It is like when he played Andrew Johnson on the right wing against the Netherlands. Sometimes an individual must be sacrificed to get the best balance. Eriksson must be prepared to do that, he has a huge pool of talent to draw from. He should also pick players in form. Great managers have an ideology, they fit players to the structure. I still think we will qualify but we have to recognise something fundamental has gone wrong and deal with it quickly.

I hope qualifying will allow the squad and management to focus and settle on a shape to take us into the finals with the confidence we had a month ago.

Graeme Le Saux played 36 times for England between 1994 and 2000

Beginning of the end: Turning points for previous England managers

DON REVIE (1974-1977)

England 1, Scotland 2 (Wembley, 4 June 1977)

The match is best remembered for a post-match pitch invasion by the Tartan Army that culminated in the goals being pulled down but it also signalled the end of Revie's reign. England, already struggling in the World Cup qualifiers, had lost to Wales at home five days previously and were well beaten by the Scots. Gordon McQueen and Kenny Dalglish had scored by the hour and Mick Channon's late penalty was no consolation. While England's players headed off for what would prove a successful tour of South America, Revie, reading the runes, sneaked off to the desert to sign for the United Arab Emirates.

GRAHAM TAYLOR (1990-1993)

Norway 2, England 0 (Oslo, 2 June 1993)

A gruesome defeat immortalised in the documentary, "Do I Not Like That", which showed Taylor trying to explain to a bemused Nigel Clough how an ambitious but failing formation should be adapted when Clough went on as a substitute. England had attempted a formation in which Paul Gascoigne played in front of a three-man defence. Oyvind Leonhardsen and Lars Bohinen, both then unknown before moving to English football, scored either side of half-time. The team's disorganisation was further revealed when England lost their next match 2-0 to the United States. Taylor hung on until November when England's failure to reach the World Cup finals was confirmed.

GLENN HODDLE (1996-1999)

Luxembourg 0, England 3 (14 October 1999)

The scoreline camouflaged a patchy performance on a squally night further marred by hooliganism. England, having already lost a European Championship qualifier in Sweden, and been held at home by Bulgaria, might have dropped more points if Luxembourg had not missed a penalty while the score was still 0-0. Gareth Southgate, Michael Owen and Alan Shearer then scored but victory was followed by allegations of a dressing-room row between Hoddle and senior players angered by his World Cup diary. The growing disenchantment meant ill-judged comments Hoddle later made about disabled people were seized upon. The media and Football Association then forced him to resign.

And a defeat that offers Eriksson hope

RON GREENWOOD (1977-1982)

Norway 2, England 1 (Oslo, 9 September 1981)

The match which famously sent a Norwegian television commentator into raptures also seemed to end England's hopes of qualifying for the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Another England thrashing of Norway seemed on the cards when Bryan Robson scored early on. But the part-timers replied with two goals in five minutes before the break and held on, prompting commentator Bjorn Lillelien to invoke a string of English names, from Lord Nelson to Margaret Thatcher, before proclaiming: "Can you hear me? Your boys took one hell of a beating!" However, results elsewhere helped England into the finals after all.