Steve Tongue: Becks in right place to give Crouch the nod

As reckless Eriksson switches to conservative mode, he cannot afford to miscalculate again
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Apart from brief flirtations with 3-5-2 at Benfica and Sampdoria, Eriksson has always been a 4-4-2 man, which made his sudden experiment with Beckham as the anchorman in a 4-5-1 system for competitive matches against Wales and Northern Ireland last month all the more uncharacteristically reckless. The one benefit of the resulting humiliation in Belfast was to convince the coach to make pragmatism the better part of stubbornness and revert to what he and Eng-lish football know best. (Yes, it was the formation used for the 4-1 defeat in Denmark earlier in the season, but that was essentially a failure of personnel, brought about by too many changes too early in an inconveniently timed friendly).

The English style of 4-4-2, zonal marking and pressing, successfully employed in Sweden by Halmstad's Roy Hodgson and Malmo's Bob Houghton, made such an impression on the young Eriksson that he wrote a paper on it for his coaching exams and adopted it for his own teams; "Swenglish" became "Svenglish" and soon IFK Gothenburg had won him the Uefa Cup and an international reputation.

The permissible variation to the system is to have one of the two strikers dropping a little deeper, which Wayne Rooney brings almost instinctively to a team, and will do if he is recalled against Poland on Wednesday week. But that Kevin-the-teenager temperament is leaving him sitting in Old Trafford's main stand for some important matches these days and he will be in civvies on Saturday, just as he was for Manchester United's Champions' League game against Benfica.

Apart from Rooney's suspension and the Windsor Park débâcle, the other factor helping to concentrate Eriksson's mind these past couple of weeks has been the excellent form of Beckham and Crouch. England's captain, who has significantly made no great claims for himself as a holding man since the Northern Ireland game, has been outstanding for Real Madrid, above all in last Wednesday's Champions' League game against Olympiakos, when he played out wide and tormented the Greeks all night with the precision of his crosses.

"Crossing the ball and working from set-pieces is what I do," Beckham said. "I want to put the ball into areas from where we can score. I'm not a player that runs at people like Luis Figo or Ryan Giggs, but when I get the chance, I can put a ball where a forward wants it." On Saturday, he seems certain to have the opportunity to do so for the lanky Crouch, who has been equally impressive for Liverpool; not just winning balls in the air, either, but taking them down with his feet and chest to await support in a manner some doubted he would ever manage.

At Anfield last Wednesday, even natural competitors like Chelsea's John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho found it almost impossible to win clean headers against him; on one telling occasion in the second half, they simply backed off a high ball and let him have possession. Crouch himself said afterwards: "I always felt confident I could play at this level, and against Betis and Chelsea I have felt more than comfortable. The lads have helped me to settle in and I am just enjoying playing in a games of this size. One of my strengths is holding the ball up and bringing other people into play."

The bonus for him against Austria should be that instead of having to rely on Steven Gerrard thrusting forward from midfield, he will have Michael Owen up with him and waiting for the knock-downs and flick-ons; an Owen, moreover, finding form and goals with Newcastle.

If Gerrard and Frank Lampard - each full of praise for Crouch after another close-up look - have not quite rediscovered their own touch, Eriksson is adamant that they are at least fitter than in Belfast, when both had to be withdrawn during the second half, dazed and confused. While Lampard seemed intent at one stage of the Anfield game on solving the question of whether they can play together by kicking his international team-mate out of contention, they are likely to be given another chance on Saturday.

There is less certainty, as ever, over the left-sided midfield berth. When the group fixtures began 13 months ago with a 2-2 draw away to Austria and then victory in Poland, that hole was filled by Chelsea's Wayne Bridge. His subsequent run of injuries and a poor team performance in Spain ended the experiment, allowing club colleague Joe Cole to take over the role with what all too briefly looked like conviction.

Poor in Denmark and worse in Wales, Cole then lost his place for club and country, and must wonder whether Kieran Richardson, who is at least playing regularly for Manchester United (albeit as an emergency left-back), might be picked ahead of him on his home ground. The prospect of Richardson and Ashley Cole supplying Crouch from one flank, Beckham and Luke Young (faute de mieux) from the other, as opposed to Joe Cole drifting inside trying to play delicate one-twos with Crouch and Owen, has its attractions.

Although Terry and Rio Ferdinand are likely to keep the central defensive positions, back-up has been strengthened with the return to fitness of Sol Campbell and Ledley King. Tottenham's Michael Carrick may now miss out through injury, offering an opportunity for men in form like Charlton midfielders past and present Scott Parker and Danny Murphy, both of whom have been playing better than, say, Jermaine Jenas.

Whatever the squad names on Ceefax at supper-time this evening, Eriksson cannot afford to miscalculate again. Even victory against Austria, who were held in Azerbaijan last month, will not guarantee qualification, since the Czech Republic and Croatia could both finish their programme as runners-up but with a better record than England.


The formation

Eriksson's indecision has been final of late, but all the signs point to a return to 4-4-2, with Michael and the Beanstalk (Owen and Peter Crouch) up front. "I prefer it, and so do the players," says Eriksson. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The holding player

In short, there isn't one. The experiment of giving David Beckham the central play-making role failed;the other midfielders seemed unable to adjust. Alan Smith has made an impact in this area for Manchester United, but is unlikely to make the squad.

Gerrard and Lampard

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered in Belfast, they have looked more assured since at club level. Automatic selections despite reservations over their defensive qualities.

Rooney's absence

Eriksson's shrug-of-the-shoulders "that's just the way Wayne is" attitude does not bode well for the foul-mouthed one's future discipline. He is suspended for the Austria game, his likely replacement Crouch, and Eriksson may opt for the robust virtues of the in-form Emile Heskey as back-up rather than Jermain Defoe.

Sol Campbell

A fit-again Campbell adds to the wealth of options in central defence. He has not played for England for nearly a year, though, and admits he still needs more stamina. His tackling is valuable, but Eriksson is likely to stick with the superior ball skills of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand.

The left side

The man-beating pace of Shaun Wright-Phillips to contrast the crossing skills of Beckham on the right? The trickery of Joe Cole? The former seems a better bet. Behind him, Ashley Cole, with Paul Konchesky in reserve. But then there is always the fast-improving Kieran Richardson.

Eriksson's popularity

What popularity? Two emphatic wins will help, but his passionless Nordic style is not to everyone's taste, and many question his loyalty to the England cause - the Chelsea episode still rankles.

Simon Redfern