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The message from Sven-Göran Eriksson on Friday was one of no panic, yet the abject defeat in Denmark a fortnight ago has shaken the England manager to the extent that he looks likely to abandon his habitual 4-4-2 formation for Saturday’s World Cup qualifier against Wales.
The 4-5-1 formation may be gaining in popularity in the Premiership, but Eriksson’s probable use of it in Cardiff is puzzling. It makes sense in the context of Michael Owen’s suspension, but given that Eriksson has made clear that he regards the forward as central to England’s World Cup hopes, it is hard to see how the system could have a more general application.
Owen, surely, will return for Wednesday’s tie in Northern Ireland, which, if the 4-5-1 were to be retained could only mean Wayne Rooney switching to the left in place of Joe Cole. Nobody doubts that Rooney could do that, just as he will be able to play with his back to goal as a lone striker today.
His best position, nonetheless, remains dropping off a striker. In the comfortable wins over Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan in March, Eriksson had a team that suited both his personnel and his instincts, which makes his tinkering baffling.
The only reason can be the hangover from that 4-1 defeat in Copenhagen, in which the deep concern was less the eccentricity of David James or the inadequacy of Glen Johnson than the fragility of the Frank Lampard-Steven Gerrard combination in midfield. For all their energy and their ability going forward, there has long been a doubt about their defensive qualities, and, in the second half at least, they were brutally exposed by Danes.
It would be a perverse tactician, though, who believed that the way to instil defensive resolve into central midfield was to add David Beckham. The term may have stemmed from a weak pun, but the truth is that Beckham will play the role like a “quarterbeck”, launching long passes to the wingers rather than scurrying and hustling and winning ball.
A qualifier against a team ranked 83rd in the world arguably represents an ideal opportunity for Gerrard and Lampard to work on understanding. It is debatable, anyway, whether the issue can be reduced to a pair of players.
In Denmark their defensive shortcomings were only exposed after half-time, and that was the result of the introduction of James. Football teams are holistic entities, and, as England demonstrated in squandering a two-goal lead in Austria last season, the knock-on effect of a keeper with a penchant for inappropriate dashes from his penalty area is that the back-four retreats. The deeper they are, the more vulnerable the midfield – it becomes a single line to be punctured, rather than an integrated unit.
Even if an anchor is desirable, there must be questions as to whether Michael Carrick or Scott Parker is not more suited to the role than Beckham.
His move into the centre opens a space for Shaun Wright-Phillips on the right, which, if he were to play well, could raise intriguing questions about Beckham’s continued presence in the side with a reversion to 4-4-2. What would happen if, say, Wright-Phillips scored a couple and set up a couple? “Then I’d be on a winning team,” Beckham said. If only it were that simple.