Ken Jones: Eriksson's lack of initiative thrives in a twilight of reason

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The Independent Football

It is rare to come across anyone today who thinks that football is simply a terrific game and a terrific spectacle, no more, no less. Anyone, in fact, who does not see the cosmic musings of deep thinkers, the posturing of shallow thinkers and the huckstering of double-thinkers as a perfect spiral of lunacy. From muddled authority to porous opinions, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the national game has descended into a twilight of reason.

It is rare to come across anyone today who thinks that football is simply a terrific game and a terrific spectacle, no more, no less. Anyone, in fact, who does not see the cosmic musings of deep thinkers, the posturing of shallow thinkers and the huckstering of double-thinkers as a perfect spiral of lunacy. From muddled authority to porous opinions, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the national game has descended into a twilight of reason.

Certainly, the present turmoil over the seedy events that have thrown the Football Association into disarray, causing the resignation of its chief executive, Mark Palios, and leaving other leading figures at Soho Square under threat, is a wincing reminder that the governing body of English football has made no great strides since it moved on from the influence of amateurs.

The crowded and confusing present is the question. Among the issues at stake when the FA's 12-man board meets today at Soho Square will be the position of the national coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, who stoutly maintains, as a single man, that his private life is irrelevant. Considering the responsibility Eriksson bears in such a high-profile position, I have my doubts about this although, interestingly, a poll conducted by one of the newspapers I consult in the course of my researches came out in favour of Eriksson on the basis that he is doing a good job.

Earlier this week, the FA's acting chief executive, David Davies, vigorously defended Eriksson and the decision to make him, at £4m a year, probably the game's best-paid educator. "Sven is one of the best coaches in the world," Davies argued. This, plus the fact that a number of the present England squad have thrown their weight behind Eriksson, opens up a debate that could go on and on, depending on how you perceive these things.

How good is Eriksson? Just three defeats in competitive matches since his appointment nearly four years ago is hardly a bad record. However, England failed to progress beyond the quarter-final stage of the two major championships they have contested under his stewardship.

The loss to Brazil in the 2002 World Cup called into question Eriksson's tactical acumen and powers of persuasion. Similar criticisms were levelled against him following England's exit from Euro 2004, a hugely disappointing outcome considering the talent available. England were stronger individually than in 2002, but it was apparent that there had been no significant advances in team play. Sir Trevor Brooking's detailed report on England's performances in Portugal referred pointedly to poor passing and the absence of an alternative plan when Wayne Rooney was injured.

From the start, Eriksson's policy has been pretty clear. It has been to harness the traditional strengths of English football, the employment of the forceful style that thrives in the Premiership but has failed to produce a European Cup winner since Manchester United's success in 1999. Innovation, it seems, is not one of Eriksson's strong points.

Palios's resignation last Sunday came 38 years and one day after England won the World Cup, their only success in major tournaments. For reasons he did not bother to make explicit at the time, Alf Ramsey went into the knock-out stages in 1966 without wingers, adopting a method that provided security in midfield and chances for goalscorers. The key was accurate delivery of the ball. "When you're caught up in the emotion of a game some things don't register, but when I first saw film of the final against West Germany I came to realise just how well we moved the ball around," Jack Charlton said.

England's inability to retain possession and play through midfield was as damaging to progress in Portugal as it was two years earlier at the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, stemming from Eriksson's preference for early service to his strikers.

The only sure way to get a footballer to perform at or near his peak is to surround him with good players and a good coach and an organisation with which he is comfortable. The ability is there, formed, for the coach to know what to do with, not inhibit.

Why, we might ask, is Eriksson guaranteed the support of leading members of his squad, most notably the England captain, David Beckham, with whom he has a special relationship? Is it because he gives them an easy ride, satisfies their every whim?

Last week, at a dinner in Yorkshire held in conjunction with the opening of a garden to maintain memories of John Charles, I put to a number of old pros the possibility that Eriksson's closeness to his players works against the production of a winning team. My companions had all played at the highest level; two had held senior posts in management. "When I read that Eriksson is well liked within his squad I have to wonder," one said. As for Eriksson himself, it was unanimously agreed that he has a great deal to prove.

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