James Lawton: Folly of Eriksson's meddling madness will leave England down and out in Germany

The hunch is that Eriksson, rather than losing the plot, simply doesn't have one

If Eriksson was any more removed from that place of sweet reason, his team would by now have come up with its own version of Harry Potter's quidditch. Instead, they are so far from the basic attributes of a properly functioning football unit that a 1-0 win over a pitifully equipped Welsh team is greeted as some kind of triumph for the survival instinct.

This madness is escalating, and by quite how much was underlined by one - hopefully lunatic - suggestion doing the rounds post-game at the Millennium Stadium at the weekend. It was that the replacement of Shaun Wright-Phillips, and the reassignment of Wayne Rooney, 22 minutes from the end of the game, was not in fact another fatuous chapter in the endless Eriksson story of cocking up the laws of substitution. What the coach was really doing, it was said, was softening the blow for when he dropped Wright-Phillips and returned David Beckham to his old position on the right flank against Northern Ireland in Belfast tomorrow night.

The feeling here is that Eriksson, while crafty enough in terms of personal advancement and enrichment, is not so callously cynical that he would deliver psychological devastation to such an exciting, but still plainly insecure, young prospect as Wright-Phillips, simply to shield his favourite and much indulged football son, Beckham, from any fresh critical buffeting.

If this hunch is right, however, it can only lead us to an equally bleak conclusion. It is the likelihood that Eriksson, rather than losing the plot, simply doesn't have one.

What other interpretation can we place, if we discount the latest conspiracy theory, on a tactical decision which both then and now simply beggars belief?

Wright-Phillips, England's best chance of wide speed and bite in the World Cup finals, was playing with a growing confidence, hurting the Welsh whenever he had the ball. But Eriksson said that by bringing on Jermain Defoe, and shifting the despairing Rooney out to the right, he sought to "kill" the game. Kill a game against the Welsh? We saw the result, a disfiguring scramble for safety against a team who should have been waltzed off the park by a side who are supposed to possess some of the best talent in world football.

A sinking John Major once declared that the Conservative party had to get "back to basics". Before he is once again submerged by his own folly, Eriksson should consider the same option.

If he did this his selection for tomorrow's game would be the simplest of chores. He would return Beckham to his proper position, wide on the right, where his talent for crossing the ball and passing will always be his most telling weapon, drop Joe Cole, play Wright-Phillips on the left, and reinstate Michael Owen after his suspension.

Rooney would then operate in his best position, a marauding arc off Owen. Cole would no doubt feel aggrieved, but with little reason. He was abject against the Danes, and no better against the Welsh, his winning goal the fruit of a deflection not a well hit shot. Cole, in fact, provides two reasons to rebuke Eriksson. For so long, when the extent of his talent for international football was unclear, he had a series of walk-on roles on which he simply could not be adequately judged. Now he is playing for 90 minutes when it is desperately clear that his instinct is primarily to make tricks rather than authentically relevant football.

Eriksson's detachment from reality is now touching on the bizarre, a fact which is highlighted by Beckham's positioning in front of the back four. Quite a bit of the captain's work was eye-catching and effective against the Welsh, but that was the point... It was against the Welsh, who granted him acres of space, and aeons of time. This was the position most brilliantly filled by men like Franz Beckenbauer and Franco Baresi.

Beckenbauer, particularly, had Beckham's creativity, but his greatest talent was in reading the game, picking out points of danger, and then turning it, gloriously, into attack. Beckenbauer and Baresi had the feet of artists, but also the hearts of defenders. Beckham has artistry but his defensive attributes could be catalogued on a sweet wrapper. There are no Beckenbauers or Baresis around today, but there is a Claude Makelele, who is superb at winning the ball and adept enough at moving it along. Beckham says that he can play Makelele's role. It is another nonsense.

It is one, though, that has lost much power to surprise. Last week's story about a player deputation, led by Beckham, conferring with the coach about his selection and team formation, should have been greeted with derision rather than a resigned shrug. But, of course, we have been here before, and most exasperatingly, in the middle of the group games in last summer's European Championships in Portugal. Then the issue was the mythic diamond formation. Eriksson had gone along with it for two years, scrapped it, then sought to restore it in mid-stream. Certain players objected, we were told. The madhouse was out of control and in the process England lost their most consistent midfield operator, Paul Scholes, shunted out to the left side once too often.

What did the diamond dispute say? Only that Eriksson had wasted several years in its deployment and was effectively obliged to start again. It is what happens when a friendly match is seen as a money-grabbing chore rather than an invitation to shape a team's understanding, when caps are handed out like confetti and the sense and pride of playing for your country descends to the level it hit in Copenhagen the other day.

Now the latest strand of debate concerns Beckham the holding midfielder. He is the leading participant, saying: "I give extra protection to the centre-halves. Rio [Ferdinand] said he felt a lot more comfortable. Defending isn't the best part of my game but it's one I'm more than capable of doing."

While saying this, Beckham was at pains to point out he didn't pick the team. Well, let's hope not. Let's wish that Eriksson achieves some magical deliverance from this idiotic debate, that he remembers that the true art of football coaching is to make a complicated game look simple.

How might he best do this? By spending a little time considering a few of those basics. One of them is that you do not categorise an international midfielder as a holding player. You require him to do two, maybe three jobs. In all of this he most importantly relates to those around him, in a way in which recently two of England's most valuable players, Steve Gerrard and Frank Lampard, have utterly failed. He is watchful and involved, he helps out a full-back, he covers when he has to, he plays one-twos as a matter of course, and always he is involved in the flow of the game. He knows when to go, he knows when to stay, and if he does his job properly he multiplies his presence.

When the Brazilians, who qualified on Sunday night in another blaze of well fashioned coherence, hit their stride the temptation is to count heads. They outnumber their opponents, or so it seems, two to one, three to one. They play clever little triangles; they break open the play; they always have rhythm.

When did we last say this of an England performance? Maybe it was against Germany nearly four years ago, a glory that had turned into a mirage within a year.

Yes, England do have some high quality talent. Rooney alone is a force of nature. But where is the guidance, where is the sense of the growth of a team? In its place we have conspiracy theories, small and petty mysteries which come and go, like the team, without a hint of real illumination.

Did Eriksson really withdraw Wright-Phillips for the benefit of a soft landing for Beckham when he returns, as all logic says he should, to the right side of the midfield? It is too ugly to think so. But then who knows? Maybe Eriksson does. Maybe he doesn't. Either way, the prospects do not look good. They rarely do when it all comes down to guesswork.

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