Sometimes you look at the world and wonder how so much change can cram itself into a single year. We are nine days away from the first anniversary of England’s defeat against Brazil in Shizuoka and here is a statistic to confound you. Since that epic anti-climax, Sven-Goran Eriksson has used 25 players who were not on the pitch against the eventual world champions. In all, he has called on 55 players and awarded 25 new caps over 29 games in charge.
Some features of England’s pained attempts to reach a first major final since 1966 are more familiar. Their susceptibility to the set piece has become horribly entrenched. Wednesday night in Middlesbrough it cost them another soft goal that rendered the England-Slovakia game eerily reminiscent of England-Macedonia in Southampton — but with a much happier outcome. For all the experimentation with new faces, England have yet to come up with a convincing and trusted system of play.
Here’s another log for the bonfire. Last season — a World Cup year, remember — these England players clocked-off only 10 days later than they have this time. The timing of this match was a nonsense, and a damaging one at that. This was meant to be a fallow summer. As it is, England’s best will be lucky if they get four clear weeks off, which sounds a lot but is actually minuscule in the context of an intensive English season — topped off by Euro 2004, if they qualify.
Not that fatigue can explain the chaos of the first half. The aching limbs, the dips in form, will be seen next season as each takes his turn on the rota of exhaustion. Eriksson’s first qualifying campaign was a spectacular international rescue act. This one should be called the crab’s progress. Thanks, in part, to Eriksson’s promiscuity in matters of team selection — and his obedience to the big Premiership clubs — no two England performances are the same. This team need consistency and momentum.
In Shizuoka, it was hard to see how this young England side might evolve. Eriksson’s selections in Japan aroused few lasting controversies. But look at their world now. David James has supplanted David Seaman, Wayne Rooney has erupted on to the international scene at Emile Heskey’s expense, Steven Gerrard has yanked the No 4 shirt back off Nicky Butt and Frank Lampard and Matthew Upson have finished the campaign with two consecutive starts. Jermaine Jenas, Joe Cole and John Terry are also pushing through as we pant our way into the recess.
In a world of fit men, the rebuilding looks less dramatic. In a world without physios, James, Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes and Michael Owen could all expect to start. That’s nine from 11 — which is virtually unchanged from this time last year. But how many countries have unearthed a 17-year-old of Rooney’s calibre in the last six months' Eriksson would probably argue that he has 20 players to choose from now instead of maybe 15 a year ago.
The biggest break with the past, though, has been tactical, with the belated realisation that it is no good forcing right-footed players to play down the left-side of midfield in a rigid 4-4-2 formation, though there was a relapse after Slovakia took a 31st minute lead. Frank Lampard is the latest to take the graveyard slot: a central midfielder asked to impersonate Ryan Giggs.
Against Slovakia in Bratislava after half-time, Eriksson happened upon a narrow midfield diamond that relocated Scholes in a more attacking position and disguised the absence of an authentic left-sided flyer. After much hesitation, the diamond became the summer’s hottest fashion before being dumped again.
Quite right, too. Poor Steven Gerrard spent the first-half trying to do three jobs. Gerrard is in exemplary form for England, but even he cannot be expected to play all these instruments at once. Until Danny Mills went off (a mercy, if ever there was one), Owen Hargreaves came on and Eriksson reached for the old comforts of 4-4-2, Gerrard was playing deep-midfield tackler, Beckham deputy and advanced playmaker. Too much. In the meantime, we saw Upson labouring to maintain his concentration level and Ashley Cole absent without leave in the left-back position as Slovakia cut England’s back four into strips.
Finally, the thoroughbred blood began to flow — especially Gerrard’s, which looked the purest blue. If United can manage without Beckham, England can now get by, if they have to, without their hyper-industrious captain. Gerrard’s leadership-by-example was Beckhamesque.
In Michael Owen, meanwhile, they have a match-winner of even greater international importance and stature.The priority last night was to honour the performances of Gerrard and Owen and then switch off the lights.