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Jun 24, 2006

Sven should be so lucky

When Michael Owen's knee buckled and twisted in a fashion the joint is not designed to do, a nation winced. Not just at the unpleasantness of the spectacle - repeated ad nausea in grotesque slow-motion close-up - but at the implications for England's fate in a tournament that, 45 first-half minutes against a limited Swedish side excepted, has produced little to inspire optimism.

Sven Goran Eriksson's baffling decision to take just four recognised strikers, two of whom were carrying injuries and one of whom he seems reluctant to employ, was, in that instant, revealed to be a mistake. Oh to be a fly of the wall of Jermain Defoe's living room just then.

That moment, however, could yet turn out to be a heavily disguised blessing. Eriksson is fond of repeating his belief that you need a bit of luck to win the World Cup. He never said it had to be good luck. Owen's ill-fated 60 seconds against Sweden may yet be England's salvation.

Up to that point, despite toiling gamely and hindered by England's anachronistic long-ball game, the Newcastle striker had offered little to England's campaign. Loyal to a fault with his established names, Eriksson would never have dropped a fit Owen and so, in all truth, an injury was the only way he was ever going to be left out of the team.

With virtually the entire team having a reflex, triggered by the sight of Peter Crouch's giant frame somewhere just beyond the half-way line, to chuck long, hopeful balls in the Liverpool striker's general direction, and this avenue having been discredited in laboured victories over Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago, his star, too, has waned. A relative newcomer to the squad, Eriksson feels more able to wield the axe on Crouch.

Theo Walcott's role in Germany remains unclear. But it is certainly not to play football. A natural understudy to Owen due to his directness and pace, that he wasn't given his head after Owen crawled to the touchline in a game that England didn't even need to win provides ample evidence of this.

And so the fates have conspired to force Eriksson into finally answering a question he has ducked for the last two years of his reign.

Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were both short-listed for the FIFA player of the year awards this year. Consistently excellent at their respective clubs for what seems like an age, to include the pair at the heart of England's midfield is as logical as sticking a pre-tournament treble of Togo to lose every group game they played.

But from time to time logic and football make uncomfortable bedfellows. It really shouldn't be, but, for whatever reason, these two colossuses of the game just can't seem to share midfield responsibilities without neutering the very essence of their individual qualities. How Jose Mourinho must thank his stars for Gerrard's eleventh-hour decision to spurn Chelsea's advances the previous two summers.

Eriksson, like anyone who has watched England become a whole less than the sum of its parts since Euro 2004, recognises this, even if he has never had the nerve to do something about it.

As late as England's penultimate warm-up match against Hungary he tried to solve the riddle, playing Jamie Carragher as a holding midfield player to free the pair. The failure of this experiment lead to a quick denial of the problem ever having existed in the first place and a hasty retreat to 4-4-2. England's tepid performances in the group stages in Germany give ample proof that ignoring something is never an effective way of making it disappear.

But now Eriksson's hand has been forced by a striking crisis partly of his own making.

Against Ecuador, Michael Carrick will play the holding role with Owen Hargreaves - who put in a critics-silencing display in the position against Sweden in Gerrard's absence - taking over at right back due to Gary Neville's injury and Carragher's surprising impotence as deputy.

At long last Gerrard and Lampard will be given license to roam for country as they have for their clubs. Concern that Wayne Rooney is not a natural target man and may be fettered slightly by a need to play high up the pitch rather than coming deep to forage for possession should be outweighed by the possibility of the two midfield players' freedom to bomb forward, safe in the knowledge that Carrick will still be behind them should possession be lost.

Carrick is not a destroyer, though more than able in the tackle, but his genuinely two footed distribution and calmness on the ball should see an end to repetitive 50-yard diagonal passes coming from that area of the pitch.

The change in formation is not a panacea for all of England's ills and creates imbalances at the same time as curing others. But it has become painfully clear that adherence to the orthodox 4-4-2, with Gerrard and Lampard stymied by each other's presence, stands little chance of delivering ultimate triumph to a desperate English public.

It should have been addressed long before the second round of a World Cup, one defeat away from the end of Eriksson's tenure, but he should be grateful that it has.

The Swede has, in his initial squad selection, cheery demeanour at press conferences and uncharacteristic willingness to tinker with systems and personnel, the air of someone working their notice, unconcerned about what impression they are making to an employer that will soon be consigned to the past.

He is performing the international manager's version of turning up late and taking extravagantly long lunch breaks; he is meddling with his formations with something approaching abandon. And it could be to England's advantage.

Owen - and Freddie Shepherd - would have grounds to disagree, but that moment of misfortune for the Newcastle striker may turn out to be the bit of luck Eriksson was looking for.


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