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May 10, 2006

Walcott masks a conservative approach

Talk about leaving it late. Two months (or less if we're being realistic) shy of his final day in office, Sven Goran Eriksson has cut loose.

After six years of being lambasted for a dour, middle management approach to his job, a stewardship that seemed to value steadiness and continuity above excitement and innovation explodes into one of reckless gambling on a scale that would make even Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen wince.

Or so the media storm that has blown up around the inclusion of the untested yet prodigious talent of Theo Walcott in England's World Cup squad would suggest.

Further inspection of the details of that squad, however, reveals that Eriksson's last-gasp chameleon act is nothing of the sort. The 23 names on the sheet contain all the hallmarks of the Swede's pragmatic and uninspiring approach to international management.

Make no mistake about it: this is Eriksson through and through; the same Eriksson who presided over tepid quarter final exits at the last two international tournaments. The same Eriksson whose failure to mould and adapt the wealth of talent at his disposal into a coherent, dominant force risks wasting that gift he has been so fortuitously afforded. Nothing has changed beyond the superficial.

Wayne Rooney's injury is a disaster for England, and would be no matter who was in charge. He is the fulcrum of the side and its most important player.

But now he is to miss the finals; he will surely miss the entire competition, the manager must earn his £4 million salary and come up with a plan B. And he hasn't. He's just come up with a way of sticking as closely to plan A as possible. Careful now.

One 'surprise' was that Eriksson only selected four strikers. In fact, he referred to Joe Cole as 'one of the best in the country as a second striker,' during the press conference. Better make that five then - Cole will be asked to do as convincing an impersonation as he can of the absent Rooney.

Now there is a gap to be filled on the left: tonight, Stewart Downing from Middlesbrough, you will be Joe Cole.

And that, pretty much, is that. Michael Owen will play if he is anything approaching fit. If he really is unable to go on, Walcott rather than Defoe is there as his replacement. A bold move, to give Eriksson his dues on this one.

The need for speed determined the choice and, despite Walcott having as many Premiership starts to his name as you or I, not really the everything-on-black-13 risk it has been painted as in some quarters - or even as illogical as the playful Swede, barely suppressing a giddy, girlish chuckle as he delivered his bombshell, suggested.

Walcott should have no fear, possesses lightning quick pace, will be a hugely unknown quantity to the opposition as well and, remember, he is only there as a substitute - when did you last see Eriksson make a meaningful tactical substitution that didn't involve Peter Crouch? Or Owen Hargreaves.

In Germany next month, if England need a goal Eriksson will unleash the towering and limited Crouch, shepherding in a period of play characterised by a series of lofted, hopeful balls aimed at the Liverpool striker's head and a period of viewing, at home and in the stands, characterised by prayers offered by the devout and previously godless alike.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Sven the Showman's brave new world.

There was, perhaps even still is, an alternative. If Eriksson believes, as he assures us he does, England, even without Rooney, have a realistic chance of winning the tournament outright, they will need to impose themselves on strong opposition. That requires playing to your strengths and exploiting what you have that others don't.

Previously that was Rooney, now it lies further back in midfield. With a desperately shallow talent pool of forwards - Owen is injured and rusty; Crouch only ever a late inclusion to unsettle defences; Defoe has spent a season either not playing or not playing well; Darren Bent is callow at this level; Walcott even more so; Andy Johnson comes off the back of an enforced exile in the Championship; James Beattie, Robbie Fowler; Darius Vassell, Emile Heskey...it makes sense to build the side around the gifted crop of central players.

Employing a 4-1-4-1 formation, or variant thereon, with a holding midfield player would allow Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard to be unfettered by the rigor mortis-stiff 4-4-2 formation that has stymied their contributions at national level; each inhibited to play his natural game out of obligation to the structure and confusion over which of the two should stay and which should go.

Given freedom to roam, that pair are capable of getting the goals needed to make up the numbers in attack. Lamaprd scored more Premiership goals this season than Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe combined, whilst Gerrard topped the Liverpool scoring charts.

Evidence that Eriksson has discounted this idea exists in the omission from the squad of any of those best able to perform the anchor role, the classy Michael Carrick apart.

Phil Neville, Scott Parker (laid low by glandular fever) and, most tellingly of all, Ledley King (closer to full fitness than either Owen or Rooney) all miss the plane. Carrick would probably be first pick for the position, but the absence of cover suggests it is not part of the plan. Only Eriksson can know what Jermaine Jenas and Hargreaves's functions are.

The marrying of attacking instinct and tactical discipline of Cole on the left has been the biggest, and hardest won, boon to England since the last tournament two years ago, when the Chelsea wide man was struggling to hold down a club place never mind being nominated for awards.

To sacrifice this, as the squad make up suggests is the intention, does Cole, Downing - a bright prospect but hardly the finished article - and, ultimately, England a huge disservice.

Aaron Lennon has earned his place and if Eriksson has truly developed a taste for the fanciful, eschewing his near sycophantic loyalty to key senior players, regardless of form, then he might want to consider removing David Beckham's name on the teamsheet and replacing it with that of the Spurs winger. But he won't, as Shaun Wright-Phillips (the Manchester City vintage) can testify.

Eriksson may have succeeded in shocking the press pack with his 'outlandish' selection.

But in truth the whole exercise was one of finding what he had available that could be shoehorned into his beloved and unchangeable 4-4-2 system; one that is destined to fall as flat as the rigid lines it dictates.


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