James Lawton: If England win the World Cup, it will be the ultimate irony of Eriksson's years of misrule
Monday 05 June 2006
So farewell then, Sven, you have coloured our lives in a way those of us who so enthusiastically supported your appointment five years ago never expected, and had no reason to fear; we thought you were a cool Swedish man of the world who would carry the England team away from erratic, patternless leadership, not to mention faith healing and quasi-religious claptrap.
We thought you had sophistication, a little ice in your veins and your thinking. We expected a thread of logic, and a degree of discretion in all that you did, and some of us were quite indignant about the Little Englanders when we pointed to your record in your homeland, in Portugal and Italy.
We thought a generation of England footballers of great promise, even before the eruption of the then 15-year-old Wayne Rooney, had been delivered into the guardianship of common sense - and were certainly not surprised when you repaired a disastrous qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup, though beating German 5-1 in Munich went beyond any serious hopes. We talked about the bells of the Bavarian capital ringing for English football, Sven. Look, we could say to those who railed against having a Johnny Foreigner in charge, Sven knows.
After the evisceration of a Jamaican team who blithely ignored all but nominal obligation to defence, there seemed to be a few eddies of that conviction when you made your exit from football on English soil, but not here, Sven.
How could there be, when you really think about it? Frank Lampard has said, and not without support in some quarters, that the fact that England are not quite sure of what they are doing, what their shape and their personnel will be when the serious action starts, might be the dimension that was missing when England unravelled so critically in the two biggest matches of Eriksson's stewardship, the World Cup and European Championship quarter-finals against Brazil and Portugal.
This is nonsensical. The point of a successful ambush is that one team - not both - are in the dark.
There are two ways to prepare for a World Cup. There is the way the Brazilians invariably do it, and all other serious candidates. There is a plan, not Plan A, B and C, because while any plan is subject to modification according to circumstances, an international manager has enough to do honing close to perfection one basic conception of how his team play best.
The concept of the team has to be refined in the two-year build-up to the big tournament. A Ronaldinho or a Messi or, indeed, a Rooney might be injured, but this is an occasion for modification, not a wild throwing of the cards.
This is, according to the laws of all we know about football's greatest tournament, the way to win. It is the approved route, followed unswervingly by great World Cup coaches like Sir Alf Ramsey, Helmut Schön (Germany), Cesar Menotti (Argentina) and Enzo Bearzot (Italy).
Then we come to the Eriksson way. It is to strip friendly matches of virtually all significance. It is to go into World Cup 2002 with terrible, and eventually justified, doubts about the fitness of the captain David Beckham and leading striker Michael Owen. It is to approach Euro 2004 with an ongoing debate about the possibility of a midfield diamond and again an untouchable Beckham, who finally admitted that he was a long way from genuine fitness, a fault, apparently, of the Real Madrid training regime.
Now we have his third attempt at coming up with the right preparation. Last week, before Tuesday's game against Hungary, he suggested he had arrived at his team for the opening game against Paraguay.
Jamie Carragher would play as the "holding" midfielder. Michael Owen, despite fears for his match sharpness that were far from totally relieved by his goal against the absent-without-leave Jamaican defenders, would be the lone specialist striker with Steven Gerrard in support. Four days later, that was all history. Peter Crouch was in the team and making an irresistible claim to a place against Paraguay.
Carragher was back in defence, where he is superb. Gerrard had returned to midfield. Eriksson now said this was the team that would open the World Cup.
Whatever happens in Germany, and including the possibility of an unprecedented rate of recovery by Rooney, it is still necessary to decide which way we prefer. The Eriksson "method" of chance and speculation, a roadshow that depends on things being all right on the night? Or that other style of leadership - the one that works relentlessly on bedding down a team, imposing certainties on a game which is always subject to the hazards of misfortune?
Some are now arguing, presumably seriously, that England's very weaknesses - a lack of proper planning and clear idea of which is their best way of playing - can add up to a strength. It will confuse the opposition, but what about themselves? Where is the deeply ingrained rhythm of a settled team?
There is one last dimension. Two years ago the European title was won by Greece under the veteran German coach Otto Rehhagel. It was a victory for planning, detail, fine-tuning of an extremely limited game plan. Greece had a method and fierce discipline but they did not have a Rooney, who was the outstanding individual player of the tournament. Rooney, until he was injured in the Portuguese game, made an extraordinary promise. It was, at the age of 18, to win a major title virtually on his own.
Would the Greek plan have worked if Rooney had stayed fit and vibrant in his talent and confidence? We will never know. But then we can be sure about one matter. England were tactically bereft when denied Rooney's inspiration, and two years on there is no change. Yes, it is possible that England will win this World Cup. Gerrard may stay fit and reproduce his recent masterful form. Crouch may be a wild card capable of causing winning disruption in opposing defences.
But how much will this have to do with Sven Goran Eriksson, the man who five years ago was backed to build a future instead of living day by day, match by match? He is a personable man, he has charm and a certain owlish style, and we saw that again in his personal farewell. But let's be honest. The betrayal lies in the facts of his regime. They say that if England win the World Cup it will be in defiance of odds imposed by the history of football success. Sven will have conquered in spite of himself.
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