James Lawton: Eriksson must stop absurd practice of sending in the clones

In football you do not have the luxury of a specialist kicker; it is not gridiron
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Italian television have made a rather controversial but not totally discouraging reading of England's inglorious march to the quarter-finals of a World Cup that has given us so many brilliant moments and a whole series of wonderful plot-lines.

After saying the game with Ecuador was technically the nadir of the tournament, a match of infinite tedium and breathtaking ineptitude, the Italians believe they have sniffed out a cunning plot by Sven Goran Eriksson.

They suspect that the Swede, having been given by far the easiest route to the last eight, is fielding a team of clones, perfectly formed in every physical aspect except the capacity to play anything that might resemble international football at the highest level.

Then they suspect that when England's challenge gets serious, the real Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and John Terry will turn up - and that Wayne Rooney's lookalike cousin will retire to obscurity while endlessly discussing that fleeting time he made a passable impression of "Our Wazza".

All of it is absurd, we can agree with "English - and Proud Of It", of Tunbridge Wells, but the Italians, who have never been that big on satire since the passing of Dante and Machiavelli and Fellini, have at least touched on the reality of England's campaign here.

It is beyond rational analysis except for the irresistible point that if they had by now met a well-organised team of genuine substance they would surely be looking at the rest of the tournament from a variety of well-heeled holiday resorts. But then once more we have to go to the nub of England's problem - leadership, as it is represented by the coach Eriksson and the captain, David Beckham.

Beckham is a hero once again despite the fact that all football logic says that he is a passenger except when England happen to win a free-kick in their opponents' half. Some will say that Beckham's fine, winning dead-ball strike against the overawed Ecuadorians has complicated the debate hopelessly. It hasn't, not if you remember football is supposed to be about, supremely, movement and killingly released pace.

If Ashley Cole, who is again beginning look like the significant international player who announced himself in the European Championship two years ago, hadn't made a superb late intervention when Carlos Tenorio had Paul Robinson at his mercy, Beckham's goal would merely have given England a tenuous parity with a team that at times cried out for a few swift sword strokes from what we like to describe as the golden generation of English football.

England are not a gridiron team. They are involved in a fluid, flexible game where the great sides prosper because they create an ascendancy in open play, when they have resources beyond the opposition in terms of skill and movement and organisation. In football you do not have the luxury of a specialist kicker because it is supposed to be an 11-man game.

Beckham is said to be the saviour of England because he pinged in one of his special free-kicks. This is another form of football illiteracy. If Eriksson had done what was demanded after Beckham's disappearance in the second half of the match with Sweden - one which had to be won if England were to make the tactically vital move of side-stepping the fast-growing Germany of Jürgen Klinsmann - they would without doubt have had more pace and more balance; they would have had a right flank which threatened all kinds of danger and momentum. Instead, Beckham trundled through another dismal demonstration of his lack of relevance to a team on the move, stretching and intimidating the opposition. Imagine how the team England fielded on Sunday would have handled the superbly ambitious and brave challenge Mexico made to Argentina the previous day? It is the bleakest of speculation.

Already in this tournament we have had two examples of the effect of young Aaron Lennon taking over attacking responsibilities on the right.

Against Trinidad & Tobago, which before the Ecuador game represented arguably the lowest point of England's performance at any stage of the Eriksson regime, Lennon utterly utterly the mood and the flow of the team. He turned the match.

Against Ecuador he had a mere four minutes at the end of a desperately close game, one in which the South Americans were at least able to achieve one of their objectives, the setting of a tempo which could scarcely have been more damaging to England's chance of picking up some of the best of their football and blasting aside plainly inferior opposition.

The pro-Beckham argument is a chicken flapping before the creation of a live football egg. What would have happened, so it goes, if Beckham hadn't been around to squeeze his free-kick just inside that invitingly wide target area allowed by the Ecuador goalkeeper Cristian Mora? After allowing that Beckham's technical skill in that scoring moment was, once more, of the highest order, we need to say it might have been that England would have shown signs of developing as a properly balanced side. Think of the possibilities that might have flowed from Lennon doing regularly what Rooney did once, getting behind the ponderous Ecuador cover and dragging the ball back to an in-running team-mate. When Rooney did it, with breathtaking impact, Lampard ballooned the ball over the bar. Maybe it was that he was startled by the delivery of such a perfect pass from that advanced position - one which Beckham now so rarely occupies.

Beckham is now being lauded for scoring a goal in each of his three World Cups - the first Englishman to do so. No doubt it is a significant statistic but it, too, is invaded by a telling reality. Beckham scored a free-kick against Colombia in 1998, a penalty against Argentina four years ago and, now, a free-kick against Ecuador. This speaks of a fine talent in kicking a dead ball, but now England need to show they are capable of doing something positive with a live one. With Beckham in the side the chances of this are sharply reduced.

So what will England produce? More of the same, presumably, a scrambling long-ball game which taxes and, more than not, nullifies the effort of Rooney, and is ironically most suited to the one other specialist forward on the bench, Peter Crouch, who is considered trustworthy in an England shirt - a status which reports from inside the England camp suggest is at least several years down the road for the absurdly selected Theo Walcott.

After his winning goal, we can be sure that Beckham's starting place is secure right up to the point of England's ejection - or final, improbable success.

Presumably the same is true of Lampard, who after all the splendour of his work over two seasons for Chelsea is increasingly a bewildered, almost tragic figure here. His finishing has become wretched - his confidence is zero. But he, too, is a Eriksson cornerstone, another problem, in relationship to the midfielder's work with the more talented Gerrard, that remains resolutely unaddressed.

In the continued failure of England to find a rhythm, a sense of themselves, Michael Carrick was all but submerged in the wider deficiencies of the team. He was, you had to remember, the fourth holding midfielder played by Eriksson is as many weeks.

According to the Italians, though, Eriksson will not be sending in the clones against his old nemesis, Luiz Felipe Scolari. Even though the Portuguese team will be without their excellent playmaker Deco - and Cristiano Ronaldo, an authentic winger, is doubtful - it would seem to be the wisest of moves. Even half a team, given that it is of sufficient quality and properly prepared, must represent the most serious of threats to an England who have not yet begun to play.