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For Sven-Göran Eriksson, England's midfield is becoming an unslayable monster. No sooner is one problem solved, than another two grow in its place.
Even with three top-class centre-backs missing, the defence looks secure. Michael Owen remains prolific, and so, even in the absence of Wayne Rooney, who will be replaced by Alan Smith in Saturday evening's World Cup qualifier against Austria, the forward line is not a particular concern. Whatever midfield quartet he fields, though, will carry an air of the experimental.
The pugnacity Eriksson has discovered since the Faria Alam affair may be disconcerting, but there is every justification for the vigour of his insistence that the four he selected at Euro 2004 was the right one. With Rooney dropping off Owen to provide the link, a midfield of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes excelled in the friendly against Iceland, flickered against Croatia and Switzerland, and held up surprisingly well against France. Only when Rooney departed against Portugal were its limitations exposed.
They dropped too deep and there were question-marks about some of Eriksson's substitutions, but essentially the template felt right. For 2006, the tournament at which it has always been felt this generation would peak, the prognosis still seemed bright, despite the depression that fell over the country following the defeat on penalties to Portugal.
“We've lost in two quarter-finals,” Eriksson said on Friday, “but my way of looking at it is how we lost. We're almost there. We lost 2-1 to Brazil in Japan [in the 2002 World Cup], and on penalties in Portugal. The difference between the best teams and us in Euro 2004 was very, very little.”
The retirement of Paul Scholes, though, ruined any chance of a steady progression, and if there was any thought that the re-introduction of Nicky Butt in what was effectively a 4-1-3-2 in last month's friendly against Ukraine could provide a solution, it was dashed when the Newcastle midfielder withdrew from the squad with a hamstring injury.
Earlier in the week Eriksson intended to play Gerrard in the holding role, but a groin injury prevented him training on Friday and he is rated only 50-50 to play. Owen Hargreaves would be an option, but Eriksson will instead pair David Beckham and Frank Lampard in the middle, with Shaun Wright-Phillips coming in for his full debut on the right. “I think Wright-Phillips is ready to play for England,” Eriksson said. “If I didn't, he wouldn't be here.”
That will delight those who have called for him to be more adventurous, but with Beckham and Lampard deployed centrally, England have no natural ball-winner. Eriksson admitted that would make him more “cautious” in his selection on the left, meaning that Wayne Bridge will get the nod ahead of Joe Cole.
Beckham makes little secret of the fact that he relishes the opportunity to play in the middle. “You have more chance of seeing more of the game,” he said. Against an apprehensive Austria side likely to field five in midfield, the lack of a midfield tackler may not be a problem, but it is hardly a long-term solution. “I'm sure at some point we'll get a player with a left foot and he'll play out there,” Beckham said on Friday but England have been saying that for years.
Eriksson seemed to be nearing the solution once, but circumstances have set him almost as far away as ever.
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