| A REAL GEM: Steven Gerrard, according to his coach, is a complete player who can play in any team in the world
Fittingly for a man who has just used a plethora of players to win a game, Sven-Goran Eriksson Thursday addressed the Variety Club in London. Yet amid the rapid turnover of personnel employed by England’s head coach in Tuesday’s 2-1 friendly victory over Serbia and Montenegro, one constant deserved cherishing.
Players may change but the successful diamond formation must be adhered to. “Since we started with it we’ve always done it very well,” agreed Eriksson Wednesday. “There are two reasons. First we can keep Paul Scholes a little bit more free. Secondly when you don’t have David Beckham or a Ryan Giggs — real outside wide midfielders — it’s very difficult to play a 4-4-2.”
And even Beckham enjoys drifting inside.
The diamond system, which is essentially varying talents concentrated into a central rectangle, works best when the full-backs have the opportunity and inclination to provide the width; Ashley Cole and Gary Neville (when fit) or Danny Mills enjoy augmenting attacks.
The strategy also masks England’s lack of a Giggs down the left and the need for numbers in the middle, particularly an anchorman, to protect the defence.
England’s leading strikers, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney, are also not the types who thrive solely on a winger’s service; both relish passes over the top or the chance to drop deep, collect possession, turn and attack. Wingless does not mean witless.
England’s outstanding performer against Serbia and Montenegro, Steven Gerrard, clearly revelled in the multiple facets of the diamond. “It suits him,” said Eriksson of a midfielder who began on the right in Beckham’s absence but who roamed productively across the middle.
“Gerrard can play everywhere,” enthused Eriksson. “He’s a great player, a complete player. He could play in any team in the world. The difference in him since I came here and now is that he seems to be a very happy young man now. He smiles and talks a lot more than he did two years ago.”
The Liverpool midfielder, who struck England’s first goal, also deserves praise for selflessly helping fellow Merseysider Rooney settle into the squad. “I think the reason he gets on with Wayne is that they have the same dialect,” observed Eriksson. “They understand each other.”
Having developed a 4-1-2-1-2 strategy that suits midfielders like Gerrard and Scholes, Eriksson must stick with it whatever his occasional predilection for 4-3-3 or for using the inadequate Trevor Sinclair as an ersatz left-winger in a 4-4-2. The players like the system and Eriksson has a deepening reserve of understudies who understand the diamond’s demands and can slot in when the principals are injured or suspended.
Starting in goal, David James faces substantial competition from Paul Robinson and, when fit, Chris Kirkland. At full-back, Gary Neville is shadowed by Mills, while any problems with Ashley Cole brings in Wayne Bridge on the left. If Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell remain Eriksson’s preferred pairing at centre-half, then capable cover is provided initially by Gareth Southgate, Jonathan Woodgate and, when fit, Wes Brown, and then by John Terry and Matthew Upson.
England’s ideal diamond midfield comprises Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gerrard and Scholes. Replacements include Kieron Dyer and Danny Murphy for the right-sided Beckham, Owen Hargreaves and Phil Neville for the anchoring Butt, and Jermaine Jenas, Frank Lampard and, potentially, Scott Parker, for Gerrard.
The eager Joe Cole confirmed Tuesday that he could excel as a creative, ball-carrying force in the hole where the quick-passing Scholes rightly remains Eriksson’s favourite. “It’s Cole’s best position,” said Eriksson of the man who scored England’s free-kick winner. “Cole is one of the biggest talents we have.”
After Owen and Rooney, Eriksson has second-string alternatives in Darius Vassell and Emile Heskey, respectively. James Beattie provides a third-choice option for the Rooney/Heskey role, although if Alan Smith ever stops his temperament getting in way of his talent he remains England material. Jermain Defoe promises promotion down the Owen/Vassell route.
Eriksson conceded that he had erred in not giving Owen and Rooney time in tandem, although he stressed that he was simply protecting Owen and that Rooney was not fully fit. “Maybe it was a missed opportunity,” said Eriksson, “but we have four practices to do it [before next week’s Euro 2004 tie with Slovakia].”
He agreed that the feisty Rooney needed to watch his challenging, particularly when following through or reacting to perceived injustice.
“Maybe he has to look at his temperament but he has to learn that. You can’t expect a 17-year-old boy to be a young man and perfect in everything. But the quality Rooney has is incredible.” Rooney is not the only ‘diamond’ Eriksson admires.