James Lawton: Little Joe the enigmatic trickster revels in the wasteland of England's left wing

If Geneva taught us anything it was the value of investment in your talent
Click to follow
The Independent Football

It belonged entirely to Joe Cole, enigmatic, problematic, but on this occasion of one of England's most encouraging victories, match-winning Little Joe. Granted 32 minutes to run at Argentina along the wasteland of England's left flank, he did that to maximum effect. Right-sided, infuriating in his excesses to many stern old pros, nevertheless he did what he had to do. Result: the pressure and width that led directly to Owen's winning strike in the Stade de Genève.

The irony? Three years ago, the last time England faced a South American team of the highest technical quality, Cole fretted on the bench as his team-mates completely failed to exploit their advantage against 10 Brazilians. He did that for 33 minutes, a minute more than was at his disposal on Saturday night. It was the time the world-champions elect had to kill after the dismissal of Ronaldinho. The England coach Sven Goran Eriksson has been hugely praised for the substitutions which brought the friendly victory over the Argentines, and maybe this is another factor exciting belief in the possibility of an England World Cup triumph in Germany. However, some will demand more evidence that the coach has truly learned from the painful and hitherto unheeded lesson inflicted in the draining heat of that World Cup quarter-final in Japan.

How does Eriksson produce that conclusion? By acting on the evidence of his own eyes, by resolving the last serious question against the composition of his starting line-up for the finals - and in the three friendlies still to be arranged which, despite the pressures from Premiership clubs, must be used for the good of the nation's football.

Even in the still largely unformed game he carried to Japan, Cole had one prime asset. It was the flair and the instinct to take the game to an opponent, and that was an element Eriksson utterly failed to produce as England's great chance of winning their second World Cup in 36 years ebbed away.

Remember the details of that blazing high noon in Shizuoka? How Owen, though hardly fit, ambushed central defender Lucio and drilled England into the lead, how Brazil equalised brilliantly with Ronaldinho's run and Rivaldo's perfectly swivelled shot, then took the lead through a free-kick from Ronaldinho so brilliant David Seaman still cannot bring himself to believe it. Given Brazilian technique, there was no guarantee that England could break them down, especially in that broiling heat, after Ronaldinho was sent off. But there was an obligation to try.

Eriksson didn't meet it. He sent on Kieron Dyer, whose body language alone announced a disaster. Darius Vassell followed him into futility, and then the old warhorse Teddy Sheringham. There was not a single attempt to take on individual Brazil defenders and create a little space. And all the time Joe Cole, the trickster, sat on the bench and stared into the middle distance. Maybe Eriksson had vivid recall of all this in the Stade de Genève because, to his credit, he was not too easy on himself or his team after the game in Japan, saying: "We seemed tired and we lost our shape, we just knocked the ball into the three centre-backs instead of working it around the full-backs. We were not patient enough."

Back home in England, the injured Gary Neville was even more damning: "You have to take a game by the scruff of the neck sometimes. But when they went to 10 men we seemed to let the game drift." Whatever else he may or may not have done, Joe Cole would have been incapable of letting a game drift. Now, even some of the old sceptics are warming to the sharper tempo of his play and his increased relevance to the action under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho.

In his television days, Ian St John, erstwhile star of Liverpool and Scotland, took a film crew to the East End to profile the 11-year-old causing a stir in the West Ham academy. "There was no doubt at all about the kid's skills, they were amazing. I remember thinking that if he didn't make it as a pro he could always go on the stage. Watching him come through, you had to worry if the tricks would ever stop and the serious play begin.

"He had that step-over Cristiano Ronaldo thing and to any old pro that's something akin to a disease. The good defender says, 'OK kid, do a couple of those and I'll nail you on the third'. But there's no doubt he has come on quite markedly. In fact if we all agree that the England team virtually picks itself, you have to say that in the one open position along the left, Cole is now the strongest candidate by some distance."

Where does that leave the admirable young pro Ledley King as he readjusts his blood after trying to curb the creative brilliance of Juan Roman Riquelme In pure football terms - as opposed to those which shape endless and generally misbegotten tactical arguments - in the line to provide cover in any permutation of the central defensive axis of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell.

King did not disgrace himself against the superbly inter-changing Argentinian midfield, but he remains essentially a defender of great promise. He should, along with Jamie Carragher, claim a place in the squad for both the honesty of his competitive heart and his versatility. But surely if Geneva taught us anything it was the value of investment in the best of your talent.

On that basis, Eriksson's team is self-evident: Robinson, Neville, Ferdinand/Campbell, Terry, Ashley Cole; Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard, Joe Cole; Rooney, Owen. Holding player? Put him on hold; even better, put him in the hold and forget where you left him.

The tactical arguments drone on down the years; Christmas trees, diamonds, holding players. At the highest level football is a complicated game, certainly, but the trick is to make it simple. All the great coaches and managers do that. Bill Shankly's favourite mantra was that tactics are what you do if your players aren't good enough; good players create their own system, bad players have to hide behind one.

King forced himself into the midfield argument only because of the sinking feeling that Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard would never feed off each other's talent, but it is a challenge that Eriksson cannot ignore. After the exhilaration of beating Argentina, albeit in circumstances not likely to be re-produced in real World Cup action, he might just feel bold enough to knock their heads together.

In the meantime, the coach can surely warm to the value of a team performance that more than anything was marked by a triumph of instinct rather than formula. Both David Beckham and Lampard earned ratings that were no doubt inflated by the glow of Owen's winning goals and the sheer majesty of Rooney's performance, but there was undoubtedly the kind of edge to their efforts which have been spasmodic at best in the England shirt over the past year or so.

Indeed, when Beckham absurdly talked himself into a role in front of the back four, we saw the ultimate absurdity of the tactical tinkering. It was best expressed by the captain's claim that though it was not his natural role, he could indeed play like Claude Makelele. Too often he drifted way from the right side against Argentina, but Beckham at times produced impressive bite and attacking instinct. Lampard kicked into several deep runs and menacing shots which threatened to break the hold of the immaculate Riquelme.

Then, crucially there was Little Joe. He stayed in his position and showed us the beauty of width and a willingness to attack the opposition. Now it is being said that he stands out as one of his coach's brightest ideas. Irony, indeed, for the player who feared the rather different distinction of being the most brilliant substitution Eriksson never made.

But then that's history. Who knows, maybe we can also put that in the hold.

Comments