James Lawton: England losing way on the democratic path

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England, it can now be confirmed, have indeed chosen a unique route to the peak of the European Championship. They are planning to get there ahead of such sophisticated football nations as France, Italy and Spain with the dazzling youth of Merseyside and a strange gift from ancient Greece.

England, it can now be confirmed, have indeed chosen a unique route to the peak of the European Championship. They are planning to get there ahead of such sophisticated football nations as France, Italy and Spain with the dazzling youth of Merseyside and a strange gift from ancient Greece.

Eighteen-year-old Wayne Rooney has been a classic force in the making for several years now and one no one could question England coach Sven Goran Eriksson's assertion yesterday that the man-child Evertonian's overwhelming performance in the 3-0 win over Switzerland has sent a spurt of apprehension into every corner of the tournament.

Much more questionable, however, is that other strand of Eriksson's strategy. It is called democracy; a wonderful system for governing the higher affairs of man but, up to this point in history, a guaranteed disaster amid the hair-trigger emotions of big time football.

First reports that England's players had been able to talk Eriksson out of his liking for the controversial - and in some minds completely redundant - diamond midfield system before Thursday's vital game with the Swiss in Coimbra seemed to stretch credibility a little too far. Some rival camps, and most notably the headquarters of Italy, where veteran coach Giovanni Trapattoni rules with unchallenged authority, could scarcely believe their ears. "This cannot be true," said one Italian insider. "What will Eriksson do if somewhere along the line the players say something that just isn't negotiable? Who is running the team?" Already some critics believe that England's extraordinary movement between football of outstanding quality and some that speaks of tactical and disciplinary chaos, can only be explained by the lack of a well-honed system of play - something that in the past has always been seen as integral to the highest success.

In the last week, England have produced plenty of both extremes: a brilliant, 90-minute shut down of reigning champions France; then, through technical weakness and a breakdown in control, surrender inside three minutes of injury time, followed by an incredibly mixed performance before young Rooney put 10-man Switzerland to the sword.

Yesterday, though, Eriksson launched a passionate defence of his free-ranging tactics and willingness to work with what amounts to a veto power for the players. When asked his reaction to the belief that the great teams have always worked from one basic system of play, the England coach said, "I am in charge of the team and I have always been and I felt I was yesterday, the day before yesterday and today. We practised, as we always do, two different systems we have used for two-and-a-half years. But I was not sure. The tactics used against France and Iceland worked very well but I thought that maybe it was better to make the diamond against Switzerland; we had against Turkey, who are similar to Switzerland, I don't say as a team but in organisation, and it worked well. But in practice on Wednesday it didn't look so well, I must say - and when you are not sure as a manager you talk to the players and listen to them.

"You explain - and put your cards on the table. I always listen to players. If you think you know everything because you are a manager you are making a big, big mistake, because the players have to go and do it and they will always do a good job for you if they are convinced it is the right thing to do. As long as you have practised in two different ways, it is the right thing."

Interestingly, there was the breath of a similar debate in the Italian camp when, suddenly, they were confronted by the loss of their best player Francesco Totti following his three-match ban for spitting at a Danish player. With Totti in the team, Trapattoni plays a system of 4-2-3-1, with the Roma star operating in the middle of the three behind Christian Vieri. But with Totti out, midfielder Andrea Pirlo suggested that it would be a good idea to adopt the classic style of his own Milan. Trapattoni said he would be delighted to play the Milan way if he could also include the club's non-Italian stars. It was the old man's way of saying that it was the manager's job first to pick players, then the tactics.

This is apparently considered hopelessly out of date in the camp of the New Model English army.

Captain David Beckham says: "The formation was mentioned before the game. We all decided, and the manager decided, to play a straight 4-4-2. He asked us what we felt was best. He said he was the manager and he would make the final decision but he would listen to us as well. We felt confident with 4-4-2. It is better when you play a system you are used to. That was what we did. We said to him: 'Why change it? We need to carry on.'"

Eriksson denies that there is more than a whiff of player power here. "If you can play two different systems, and do it very well, why not?" he says. "It's nothing new for me to have a meeting with players, the back-line, the midfield, the whole team. If you have players doing that it will come a long way to making them stronger together."

On a hot night in the old town of Coimbra this week that last point was not announced with overwhelming fervour. As Eriksson conceded yesterday, the midfield four gave up the ball far too easily. It all must be much better on Monday against Croatia, who drew with France and now know that they have to beat England to stay in the tournament. How England will subdue the fierce Croats is no doubt a matter of lively debate in the players' room, where young Rooney is unlikely to make much of a contribution. Some see The Kid as a bit of a throwback, and for the moment it is certainly true. He does, after all, do most of his talking on the field.