James Lawton: Eriksson the gentleman should start acting the tactical genius

Euro 2004: National coach has unflinching loyalty of his players but for how long can they continue to defend his increasingly bizarre formations?

Michael Owen's fervent defence of Sven Goran Eriksson is not in all respects a masterpiece of football logic. Praising the boss for rectifying a fundamental mistake in Bratislava after one of the worst halves of football ever played by any England team certainly errs on the side of generosity.

But if Owen can't be kind to Eriksson, who can? There is no doubt about the Swede's supreme achievement of a 20-month regime. It is to value properly the extraordinary scoring talent of the Liverpool marksman, to make him feel not only wanted but quite indispensable – a reality which Owen underlined once again in Slovakia with the predatory instincts that helped him create one goal and score another.

Owen's contribution was the difference between a valuable win and the kind of catastrophic defeat which would surely have applied far more critical pressure on the coach that any amount of pillow-talk candour from his scorned mistress, Ulrika Jonsson.

But if Owen's performance – and his public support for Eriksson – fits perfectly into the principle of one favour deserving another – it should not unduly influence any debate over the most important issue facing the coach and his team before tonight's European Championship qualifier with Macedonia. Victory should be even more of a formality than was presumed of the Slovakia game before the onset of a nightmare in tactics and performance.

Before any brief exhuming of the relevant facts of that misbegotten but amazingly rescued adventure, though, we should perhaps give unto Eriksson what is undoubtedly his. Most importantly, it is a civilised manner which has preserved for him a fundamental strength in his operation – the goodwill of his players.

This, when you examine the experience of three of four immediate predecessors is more of an an achievement than some might imagine.

Graham Taylor was quickly at odds with his most important player, Gary Lineker, and it was a breakdown in relations which led to a shameful denouement in the European Championship of 1992 in Sweden when the striker, who had rescued the campaign with a late goal on an icy night in Poznan six months earlier, was humiliatingly withdrawn shortly before England's exit from the tournament.

Glenn Hoddle brought unnecessary pressure on the young David Beckham when he talked loosely in public about the player's head not being in the right place. It was perhaps something to think – especially in view of later events in St Etienne, when Beckham was sent off for the most ill-considered reaction – but not to say anywhere but in the privacy of a two-man conversation.

Kevin Keegan, of course, made Owen's life a misery – repeatedly withdrawing him from the action in the finals of Euro 2000 and, climactically, dropping him in favour of the scoreless Andy Cole before the prestige friendly against the world champions, France, in the Stade de France.

Eriksson's employee relations have been conducted on an infinitely higher level of sophistication, no question. But of course there are other equally important issues, and last Saturday night they surfaced so plainly that any blurring of them by a fortunate escape surely also needed the widespread distribution of blindfolds.

Owen appears to be in charge of the supply. He was yesterday quoted thus, "I think everyone should be positive and look forward to the next European Championship. We will go there with a realistic chance. The team will improve and Portugal [who stage the finals] should be good, but the next World Cup in Germany should be the absolute pinnacle for this team."

That was pretty much the theme of the captain, Beckham, after the abysmal failure to challenge seriously the 10-man Brazilians in the second half of the World Cup quarter-finals? But where is this optimism underpinned?

There was certainly no evidence of it in Slovakia, when Eriksson played Paul Scholes on the left side of midfield with predictably miserable results. Where was the progression here? Eriksson made the same mistake in the World Cup against Argentina, but was rescued on that occasion by the injury to Owen Hargreaves which brought the need for reorganisation of the team. The result was the crucial injection of natural width on the left with the arrival of Trevor Sinclair.

Now Eriksson apparently intends to go against Macedonia with the same duplication of Steven Gerrard and Nicky Butt in midfield and no naturally left-sided midfielder, David Thompson having been brought into the squad for apparently no immediate reason. Alan Smith, a much more logical partner for Owen, is again omitted in favour of Emile Heskey, who doesn't score goals, doesn't complement Owen and, amazingly enough, seems to have been confirmed in his position by dint of mere strength and willingness in the Slovakian mud.

On the much smoother surface of Southampton, England should blow away Macedonia, but removing doubts about the true development of the team is an entirely different matter. Owen's support doesn't really address this rather important issue. "When you start a game you set out to play in a certain way," he said. "But there are times when you have to adapt once the game has begun and against Slovakia the manager was quick to change things around."

But what did he change? His own mistakes, and ones he had committed just a few months ago in the World Cup. Owen has legitimate reasons to support his coach but none of them should have anything to do with what happened in Bratislava. Loyalty is commendable. Misrepresentation is not.

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