Inside the mind of Sven Goran Eriksson

Has any side ever won its first two matches at the World Cup with as little style or quality as Eriksson's England? As the nation comes to terms with a baffling first week at the finals, Sam Wallace asks whether the coach is a tactical genius or an international fraud
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The Independent Football

The end of "Svenism" is almost upon us but the nature of its conclusion is as unreadable as the owlish little man watching from behind his frameless glasses. A team that is malfunctioning, a top goalscorer in Michael Owen who is playing himself out of the side and yet two victories and a place in the final 16. And in the midst of it, Sven Goran Eriksson will gently protest that all is well.

In the aftermath of their 2-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago on Thursday, the England manager granted his squad the afternoon off yesterday and many came down from their Black Forest retreat to join their families in the quiet luxuriance of Baden-Baden's best hotel. On the lawns of the Brenner's Park, tea was taken by the ornamental stream while the piano tinkled in the background. This was a scene of serenity to contrast with the chaos of the previous night's first 83 minutes.

Not that the 90 minutes against T&T has been any less chaotic than the last six months in the life of Eriksson and the Football Association. They have hurtled from the "fake sheikh" sting to the terms of Eriksson's August departure and on to the injury to Wayne Rooney in 29 April and the subsequent debate over his fitness. Eriksson purports to exist in a private bubble of calm. Outside, the world of the England football team has never been more hectic.

His is a team functioning in spite of the incoherence between the great players who make up its constituent parts, a side that cobbled together victory on Thursday from memory rather than from the master plan of their manager. There was much to admire in the resilience of Steven Gerrard, Peter Crouch, Frank Lampard and David Beckham but only because it was hard to imagine that they could still believe in the idea of victory after struggling for so long.

The solution to the compatibility of Gerrard and Lampard seems as far away as ever, Eriksson has two holding midfielders in the squad in Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick but seems unwilling to play a formation that will accommodate them. Theo Walcott has disappeared from view and Owen surely has just 60 minutes against Sweden to save his World Cup finals. England should be in despair, and yet the urgency of the situation, the clock ticking on the end of Eriksson's reign now seems to be forcing him hesitantly towards a solution.

Something finally seems to be shifting in the unchanging, unquestioning world that Eriksson has created for himself: the basic principles of his regime seem under threat, the comfortable status quo under which he has ruled is slipping. Thursday's performance told Eriksson that this side cannot thrive under the conditions that he has managed them, but they retain the potential for great deeds if they are set free.

The England manager edged closer towards that conclusion as the hour mark neared against T&T. The introduction of Rooney may have spoken of desperation but more significant was the man he replaced. It is normally the Eriksson way to substitute the peripheral player, the lowest rank - this time he broke one of his own rules (for the fourth time in five games) by removing Owen. Then he toyed with another, by moving David Beckham to the ignominy of right-back, the kind of decision that he would have considered unthinkable 12 months ago.

These were substitutions of which Eriksson can be proud. Most importantly, they changed the course of the game, but they also spoke honestly of the problems at the heart of the England team. Owen was poor so he came off. Width and pace were lacking, hence Rooney and the electric Aaron Lennon. Beckham's crossing skills were retained but in a position he favours less. There was no regard to status or nod to seniority, it was the decision of a manager who simply wanted to win the game.

For five and a half years now, Eriksson has sought to avoid disharmony and, in doing so, has created chaos. He has altered formations to keep some of his most senior players in the squad despite the emergence of others, he has played newcomers well out of position. It is late to be recognising that substituting Owen - perhaps even dropping him - will not destroy the squad.

Eriksson has spent his time in England bullied by club managers - from agreeing to making 10 half-time substitutions to some of Sir Alex Ferguson's more scandalous liberty-taking - but it took the Rooney injury to make him stand up for himself. Eriksson may turn out to be wrong on that issue, but one thing that the imminence of the end of his reign has taught him is that World Cup finals occupy an unique moment in time. A moment when a group of players thrown together by the chance of their nationality - and who cannot be bought or sold - are the ideal combination in the best form at the right time.

Of course, after Thursday, Eriksson, as usual, shrugged and described a game that no one else had seen. "I think on several occasions we did well, when we created the occasions," he said. "But when nine men are defending in the last third of the pitch, then it's very difficult to find space to play." He now knows that England need only to draw with Sweden to win the group and, regardless of the Germany v Ecuador result, that is the course Eriksson seems set upon.

It is understood that the England hierarchy regret that they did not decide to throw on Walcott in the final minutes of the Paraguay game and the player himself is left to fret that he may be remembered as a tourist rather than a footballer in Germany this summer. The Sweden match was always the most likely game to get the 4-5-1, holding midfielder formation treatment from England. The system may also provide one last opportunity to free Gerrard and Lampard.

Certainly, Eriksson's side are a long way from passing the ball like the Argentina team who put six goals past Serbia & Montenegro yesterday. But the manager who never seems to experience disappointment in the way so many Englishmen do at last appears to realise that time is short. So he has finally started to make some difficult decisions.

Does Eriksson know what he's doing? How Sven is rated after England's World Cup wins over Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago...

* NEIL WARNOCK (Sheffield United manager)

He must have a clue. To have a wage like he has for the past five years he must know what he is doing. Anyone could have put Lennon and Rooney on, it wasn't a super substitution. People say, 'we'll start slow and pick up'. I hope so. But I can't see it happening with that starting line-up. He has to keep Lennon in, I can't see anyone else going past people. But he won't drop Beckham so he'll have to change the system, go to 4-3-3.

* CRAIG BROWN (ex-Scotland manager)

You can't have a CV like his and not know what you are doing. He's only won Serie A with Lazio. I think he's a bit underestimated and some of the criticism is over the top. I remember 20 years ago I went to scout England in the 1986 finals for Alex Ferguson, who was Scotland manager then. I met some English journalists who slaughtered Bobby Robson. They had one point from two games. Bobby had to change his team, they won 3-0 against Poland and reached the quarter-finals. The difference here is they have won the first two games. I think in general he has been reactive, and you have to be proactive as a coach, but he was proactive the other night (against Trinidad & Tobago).

* GERRY FRANCIS (ex-England captain and Tottenham Hotspur manager)

I liked the way he brought on [Aaron] Lennon and took off [Jamie] Carragher, though he could have done it earlier. All we were doing the first half was hitting long balls from deep with no width, but David Beckham always comes off the line. Immediately Lennon went past people, and David Beckham got into a good crossing area. But when you see the Argentinians...!