Sven-Goran Eriksson has always preferred his success to be surreptitious. With a 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago, England on Thursday night assured themselves of a place in the knockout phase of the World Cup with a game to spare and set a postwar record of eight successive victories, but they could hardly have done it in a less inspiring way. This was a lead earned so late there was not even time to call on Owen Hargreaves to protect it.
It was a victory for persistence, if nothing else. Actually, it was a victory for persistence and nothing else. Again and again long balls were sent in the general direction of Peter Crouch, and again and again they were repulsed - a fact in which Crouch played no small part. But finally, with seven minutes to go, Aaron Lennon headed a Stewart Downing pass down for David Beckham. This time the England captain’s cross was good, and this time Crouch planted a thumping header beyond Shaka Hislop.
In injury-time Steven Gerrard whipped a left-foot shot into the top-corner from 25 yards to confirm England’s victory and provide, in some sense, vindication for a tactical brainstorm from Eriksson - possibly the first of his career.
After Wayne Rooney had been passed fit by two independent medical experts earlier in the day, it was always likely that he would play some part, but few expected him to be thrust into the fray with more than half an hour remaining. And nobody expected Lennon to come on with him, forcing Beckham back into the unfamiliar role of auxiliary right-back. That was a sign of how poorly England were playing, but was also symptomatic of Eriksson’s new boldness.
This new Eriksson is a remarkable beast, sarcastic in press conferences, willing to defy Sir Alex Ferguson, and prepared to take shocking tactical risks - even if they do replicate those that have been deployed against him in the past. For Eriksson and Beckham here, read Luiz Felipe Scolari and Deco in Portugal’s quarter-final victory over England in Euro 2004.
Eriksson should revel in his substitutions, if only because it will dull the sense of how drab England had been until he made them. Rooney is a player who adds intensity even to the pre-training stretches; here, without doing much himself beyond a couple of deftly-weighted through-passes, he energised England.
And yet the frustration of the opening hour could easily have become humiliation. It was not that Trinidad and Tobago offered much by way of attacking threat - although it took the snaking leg of John Terry to keep out a Stern John header just before half-time - merely that England’s lack of imagination made a goal seem so implausible. Once again, it seemed, Eriksson had been out-thought by a rival manager, as Leo Beenhakker’s side lined up with a five-man defence, with Dwight Yorke deployed as a midfield anchor.
It did not help that Crouch was in clumsy mode. Picked out in space by a fine Beckham cross two minutes before the break, the Liverpool forward could only shin his effort well wide. Owen was sharper, without being anywhere near his sharpest.
So England, for only the second time, have won their opening two games in a World Cup, but it is probably of more significance for the team’s chances that Rooney is back.
The clouded skies threatened rain, but instead the clouded brow of Eriksson delivered Wayne, and as thunder grumbled over Nuremberg, England fans could have been forgiven for thinking it was the sound of this campaign gathering momentum.