Sam Wallace: Owen's injury and lack of strikers adds up to 4-5-1

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Some managers select great formations, others have winning teams thrust upon them. What was the big unsaid thought as Michael Owen was carried off like a gladiator on his shield on Tuesday night? That beyond the horror of the personal human tragedy this was a moment that forces Sven Goran Eriksson to reach a conclusion he may never otherwise have been able to grasp.

Owen's World Cup is over, and as he covered his eyes it became every Englishman to remember what the striker has given his country by the age of 26. A lifetime that takes in 36 goals including one work of art against Argentina in 1998 and three against Germany in 2001 that gave English football one of its greatest nights since 1966. He was a prodigy whose international career began so precociously early, it must be hoped that it does not finish unnaturally premature.

But in the compressed lifespan of a World Cup finals, once the tributes are made, the one sad truth is that Owen is going home having scratched around mournfully to find his form. Up until the moment that his toe caught improbably in the turf of FC Cologne's immaculate pitch he was a prime candidate to be dropped, a great quandary in the mind of Eriksson, who, despite his imminent departure, proves profoundly resistant to leaving out his biggest names.

It should never have taken an injury as cruel and unfair as Owen's to force Eriksson's hand, but yesterday morning the state of his first XI to play Ecuador on Sunday had suddenly acquired a much clearer aspect. Just as when Paul Scholes retired in 2004 - thus rescuing Eriksson from juggling a midfield quartet with no natural left-sided player - the England manager was spared the dirty work. In a squad without Owen, the form points towards a 4-5-1 formation.

Eriksson has arrived there by default and we shall never know whether, if Owen had escaped Tuesday unscathed but unimpressive, his manager would have adopted a tougher stance. The 4-5-1 formation - with Owen Hargreaves behind Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, and Wayne Rooney alone in attack - has been thrust upon Eriksson, and in the circumstances it is the best option he has. But as ever with the Swede, his escape will not prove quite that simple.

His deficit of strikers now Owen has gone has become so severe that Jermain Defoe's name was again mentioned on Tuesday. "I can understand that," Eriksson said and then launched his familiar defence of Joe Cole and Gerrard's suitability to play in attack. "I think we are very well covered, even without Michael Owen, I am sure about that," he said. "Look who scored the goals against Sweden? Steven Gerrard and Joe Cole. They can do that again easily."

Very soon he may be reminding us that when Arsenal discovered Ashley Cole, aged 11, he was playing up front for his junior school. Or that David James has shown some promise coming up for corners late in games for Manchester City. The striker shortage is becoming an appropriately absurd end to Eriksson's reign as England manager - his legacy as the man who went to the World Cup finals but forgot to take enough goalscorers.

Beyond Rooney and Peter Crouch there is only Theo Walcott, who, as Eriksson said on Tuesday, "can handle it". But how does he know? Those of us who backed Eriksson's judgement when he made the astonishing decision to launch Walcott's international career ahead of his Premiership debut trusted it would be a call based on research rather than a hunch. Then as the build-up to this tournament began, Walcott slipped from view, a player mentioned only at the margins whose involvement became less of a novelty and more of an embarrassment.

The 17-year-old was supposed to come on against Paraguay but was ignored and then there were plans for him to make an appearance against Sweden, but again England's familiar chaos intervened. If Walcott was to give Eriksson a sign that he was ready then surely it would have happened by now? Should Walcott step up to the touchline now it will be, save for an unlikely easy win against Ecuador, in the knowledge that he is Eriksson's last option. One last hopeful roll of the dice from a manager trapped in a corner, a burden no 17-year-old should have to bear. No one is suggesting Defoe would have been the difference between winning or losing the World Cup but he would have had the faith of Eriksson to replace Owen against Sweden.

So a teenager he does not trust, and a player in Crouch who is best suited to the role of impact substitute leaves Eriksson with a 4-5-1 formation. His assessment of Hargreaves suggests that he is favourite to take Owen's starting place. "Brilliant," Eriksson said of his first-half performance. "I don't know how many balls he won but it was very many and he was full of energy. I always knew he is a very good player. He plays in that position for Bayern Munich week after week."

He has played at Bayern for six years now but if Eriksson has finally discovered that Hargreaves is the answer to the conundrum of Lampard's and Gerrard's compatibility in what could be his last game then so be it. Hargreaves' inclusion allies itself with his conviction that Gerrard or Joe Cole could be freed to become the second striker.

One tactical aside that may become more pressing through the week is Rio Ferdinand's injury. If he is ruled out, does Eriksson risk the shaky Sol Campbell with a start? If Gary Neville fails to recover there are even mutterings about Beckham switching to right-back, Jamie Carragher moving to the centre and Aaron Lennon filling the right wing place. Suddenly every radical tactical permutation seems possible. It is just a pity it took such drastic circumstances for Eriksson to acknowledge it.

Comments