For a man of such outward blandness, it is remarkable that Sven-Göran Eriksson should have managed to generate a drama out of a straightforward World Cup qualification group.
Yet drama this undoubtedly is, and with Eriksson’s house near Regent’s Park being vandalised during the past week and Football Association cameras being turned on the media in press conferences to guard against alleged “misquoting”, it seemed to be approaching a crisis.
England’s task in theory is simple enough: victories over Austria on Saturday and Poland on Wednesday will see them qualify at the top of the group. Three games this season, however, have brought two defeats and a deeply unconvincing victory over Wales and, in Belfast at least, the mood among the England fans was poisonous.
“Whichever country you are, if you lose games you are criticised,” Eriksson said. “It’s only when it’s England it’s like a new world war.”
He seemed, though, largely to blame the press for that, insisting that supporters he had met recently had tended to be positive, and claimed that many had told him “not to listen to the press”.
He did not, though, make any effort to disguise just how poor England have been this season. “I am very sorry about the performances,” said Eriksson, before insisting that the players “are angry at themselves” and determined to make amends.
Against an Austria side in chaos after Hans Krankl’s departure and his replacement by a coaching troika, they may well do so but it was hard to avoid the thought that the same thing was said in both Copenhagen and Cardiff.
Similarly, Steven Gerrard’s vow to adopt a more disciplined approach to make his partnership with Frank Lampard work in the centre of midfield differed from previous promises only in the degree of his pleading. The fact that Rafael Benitez uses Gerrard as an attacking midfielder at Liverpool only makes it less likely that he will discover the discipline to perform the anchor role, and one wonders whether England might not be better with a specialist defensive midfielder – such as Scott Parker or Michael Carrick – and allow Beckham, Gerrard and Lampard a degree of freedom ahead of him.
The construction of the midfield is Eriksson’s great problem; it was his efforts to shore up the Lampard-
Gerrard partnership – so exposed in Denmark – that led to the debacle in Belfast, and he has retreated to the position England were in last March.
He toyed with the phrase “back to basics” yesterday without quite endorsing it – perhaps just as well given how much the present situation already recalls the declining months of the premiership of John Major, that other bespectacled, grey-haired lothario – but with Peter Crouch likely to replace the suspended Wayne Rooney as Owen’s partner, that is how it feels.
Eriksson studied for his coaching dissertation in England in the 1970s when target men were as integral to football as midwinter quagmires and bushy sideburns, and it is to that tactic he seems to have returned.
Owen has never thrived alongside such a player but the prospect of the Liverpool forward’s 6ft 7in frame arriving at the back post to meet David Beckham crosses is undeniably enticing.
Beckham has been in superb form since returning to the right flank for Real Madrid this season and Eriksson insisted he was “very focused” despite his youngest son’s illness.
Yet Eriksson’s greatest dilemma is at centre-back, where John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell are all available, which necessitates the sort of selection decision he has largely avoided. “We’re not prepared to play with three centre-halves,” he said, with the usual avowal that he had a ruthless streak.
“I spoke with the three of them on Wednesday and told them that one of them will not be happy.”
He refused to reveal who that would be but the indications this week have all been that Ferdinand will be the man to miss out, with Campbell returning alongside Terry.
Jamie Carragher seems likely to replace the injured Ashley Cole at left-back, with Luke Young continuing to deputise for Gary Neville on the right. The full-backs, in truth, are of more con-cern for Wednesday’s game against Poland, who use genuine wingers.
Against a defensive Austria, the focus, as ever, will be on the midfield.