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After the tribulations of qualification, Sven-Göran Eriksson has been keen to stress this week that England have moved on to a new phase, and Saturday’s friendly against Argentina here is the beginning of his countdown to next summer’s World Cup finals.
Yet that there should be a need to draw a line under the qualification series is itself significant. In 2001 England qualified for the World Cup only with a goal deep into injury-time in their final game: result, ecstasy. In 2005 England qualified for the World Cup with ease and a game in hand: result, agonised hand-wringing. It is a baffling equation, one explicable only by the way 2006 has come to figure in English football’s expectation as a canonical year.
It was when Adam Crozier became chief executive of the Football Association in 2000 that it was first suggested that 2006 was when a talented generation would reach their collective peak. Although the emergence of the 20-year-old Wayne Rooney perhaps lessens the pressure, the orthodoxy remains that next summer’s World Cup represents England’s best chance of a trophy in 40 years. Certainly it is the only tournament at which England will be able to field all three of their outstanding midfielders – David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard – at somewhere near their best.
That was why the defeats to Denmark and Northern Ireland were so deflating; a team building towards glory should not be struggling against sides who will not even be in Germany.
Yet a comparison with 40 years ago is heartening. England’s first three fixtures in the 1965-66 season brought a draw against Wales, defeat to Austria and an unconvincing victory over Northern Ireland. Only in the fourth game, away to Spain on December 8, did England click as Sir Alf Ramsey introduced the wingless strategy that would eventually bring glory the following summer.
Approaching Saturday’s match against Argentina, Eriksson stands at a similar crossroads, struggling to accommodate all three midfield talents without a loss of defensive shape. His tactical solution is as similar to Ramsey’s as his fixture list: advance a centre-back to become a midfield anchor, and the other three midfielders will be liberated to play the attacking game that is their strength. For Ramsey that player was Nobby Stiles; for Eriksson, it is Ledley King.
“When you have a player who sits in midfield and gives the ball as soon as he gets it, it gives you freedom,” Beckham said yesterday. “Ledley proved in the last game [against Poland] that he can play that role.”
Given the way Argentina play, with Juan Riquelme operating at the front of a midfield diamond and Carlos Tevez hanging behind a front man, they should provide a stern test for King. “Riquelme is a fantastic player if you give him space,” Eriksson said. “He passes the ball behind the defence and beats people, and Tevez drops off. King is our best at the moment in the sitting role. He is strong, good on the ball, a good header.”
It is rare to hear Eriksson quite so enthusiastic and definitive, and he decisively swatted away suggestions that Rio Ferdinand could be advanced into the position, permitting the inclusion of both Sol Campbell and John Terry. “I gave it only very little thought,” he said. “He’s [Ferdinand] been a defender all his life and you can’t give him four games to learn a new position. The next game is in March so by then he will have forgotten.”
Whether the extra start King has enjoyed there makes much difference is debatable but today’s game should give a clearer indication of whether Eriksson’s ploy has a chance of being as successful as Ramsey’s.
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