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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 June, 2004, 07:55 GMT 08:55 UK
Sven's toughest test?
By Tom Fordyce

Despite defeat to France, there is a real optimism amongst England's players and supporters that the team can still reach the quarter-finals in Portugal.

To a certain extent, that confidence is justified. England were seconds from beating the tournament favourites, and neither Switzerland nor Croatia impressed in their 0-0 draw.

Sven-Goran Eriksson scratches his head
Eriksson talks tactics during training on Tuesday

But there is a problem - and he is called Sven-Goran Eriksson.

That might sound a strange thing to say about a coach who had presided over just one defeat in a competitive match before Sunday's late drama.

But the main strength of Eriksson's tactical approach is also potentially his biggest flaw.

Eriksson is a manager schooled in Serie A. Give him a choice between cavalier and caution, and the latter will win out every time.

Eriksson has set his England teams up with the primary aim of being hard to beat. The tactics are simple: defend deep, defend well, and hit on the break.

That works fine when the opposition start as favourites, and are guaranteed to attack. Trouble is, that won't be the case on Thursday and next Monday.

Change of plan

Think of Sven's greatest triumphs as England coach and they follow the same pattern. The win over Argentina in the World Cup, the draw against Turkey in Istanbul last October - both were the same as 91 minutes of the match against France.

In the Sapporo Dome, England let Argentina come at them in wave after wave, nicked a penalty on the break and held on by getting 10 men behind the ball at all times.

Sven-Goran Eriksson looks puzzled
Eriksson feels the pressure in Portugal

In Istanbul, it was the same. The scoreline would even have been perfectly reprised had Beckham not skied his penalty high over the bar.

Against France, history was repeating itself - a goal stolen from a set-piece, a magnificent defensive performance on the edge of the penalty box and a penalty won on the break.

Even the 5-1 thrashing of Germany in 2001 was a counter-attacking display, Gerrard's goal coming from a set-piece and the last three from quick breakaways as Germany threw men forward.

The difficulties start when England have to chase a game.

What was England's most disappointing game under Eriksson? The flaccid loss to Brazil in the World Cup quarter-finals, when England failed to create a chance in the final 35 minutes.

At 2-1 down to Greece in their final World Cup qualifier, England almost went a similar way, until Teddy Sheringham went down 30 yards out and David Beckham stepped up to save the day with that free-kick.

England need to win at least one of their two remaining games. And that means playing a more attacking, riskier style of football than Eriksson would like.

The lesson of Lineker

Being forced into serious tactical and personnel re-thinks is a familiar story for England managers at major championships.

Bobby Robson did it twice, starting his World Cup campaign in 1986 with defeat by Portugal, following that with a soul-destroying 0-0 draw with Morocco and only then - partly through injury to Bryan Robson and the suspension of Ray Wilkins - finding a successful blend.

With the team on the brink of elimination, he brought in Peter Beardsley instead of Mark Hateley to partner Gary Lineker up front, and gave starting berths to Steve Hodge and Trevor Steven.

The result? Lineker scored a hat-trick in the make-or-break clash with Poland, thanks to two assists from Beardsley and one from Hodge, and England were on their way to the quarter-finals.

Gary Lineker celebrates after beating Poland in 1986
Lineker celebrates in Mexico

In 1990, a revolt by the senior players - Bryan Robson, Chris Waddle and Lineker - persuaded Robson to ditch the flat back four after the dour draw with Ireland and bring in Mark Wright to sweep as part of a five-man defence against Holland.

That change - plus the replacement of the injured Bryan Robson by David Platt - completely transformed England as a side.

At the 1998 World Cup, Glenn Hoddle's England went into their final group game needing to beat Columbia to reach the last 16.

Forced into changes by the defeat by Romania, Hoddle finally gave Beckham a place in the starting XI, and was rewarded when he curled home a free-kick to seal a 2-0 win and qualification.

Sven's salvation?

It has happened to Eriksson too. It took an injury to Owen Hargreaves in the first 20 minutes of the Argentina game in 2002 for Trevor Sinclair to get a run on the left of midfield - and when he did, the team immediately looked more balanced.

Whether the injuries this week to Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt will have such a silver lining is uncertain.

But, shorn of his only specialist defensive midfielder, and unable to pay Scholes on the left, Eriksson will need to shuffle his line-up.

Hargreaves, Joe Cole and Kieron Dyer will all come into contention.

But exactly who will play where, and as part of which tactical approach, could be the making or breaking of Eriksson as England coach.

Links to more England stories



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