Matthew Monk

Matthew Monk is a school teacher from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Trying to second guess Sven-Gordon

    First of all let me apologise for being very parochial, but this column is all about England.

    Sven Goran Eriksson must be in a bit of a quandary now. He has a full squad, overflowing with Champions League regulars, that in the most part is fit and raring to go. His side is still playing good football and he can call on the services of a successful Under-21 side should he need to. Yet he has had to endure watching them struggle (and mainly lose) through a long list of meaningless friendlies that really don't tell us too much about what England are going to do in Japan.

    All England's recent friendlies have been messy, disjointed affairs, full of substitutions and formation changes. Eriksson has not even been able to play his first choice side since the Germany game. And it is not for the want of trying. His hands are tied by an incredibly tight Premiership title race and by English participation in the Champions League. That clearly (rightly or wrongly) takes precedence over his needs. For instance he has had to field teams without a fully fit Michael Owen, David Beckham or Steven Gerrard for far too long, and has had to try out defenders and strikers on the troublesome left side of midfield while first choices Kieron Dyer and Nick Barmby sit injured and unavailable at home.

    Perhaps because of this, he has decided to scrap most of England's friendlies for the next three years, but the fact that a more and more disinterested TV watching public wants only to see competitive football games has no doubt played a large part in prompting his actions. Take the game against Paraguay for example. While this game was live on TV, we could also watch Ireland versus the USA, Scotland-Nigeria, Germany-Argentina and Portugal against Brazil - all live. Many chose the option of flicking between all of these over watching ninety minutes from Anfield. After all, we could see all these games (plus many, many more) in highlight form less than an hour after the final whistle anyway.

    So is the end of the friendly in sight? No, not yet anyway. Eriksson has already said he wants to keep international fixtures in Autumn and Spring, to go along with all the Euro 2004 qualifiers England are going to play in the next 18-months. He is also expecting these spare international weekends to be used for formal squad training sessions. He is not stupid. The team spirit he is trying to create amongst his young, talented squad will help England greatly as they reach maturity in Portugal and Germany - as it is starting to do in time for Japan this summer.

    The picture of who is going to make up Eriksson's 23-man squad seemed to be getting clearer all the time. Now it isn't. Wisely, Eriksson has not ruled anyone out of his squad yet, and as he could still be without the quality of Beckham and Campbell he must make sure he keeps all his options open. Even though this is true we can still see a likely squad forming, and although there are still going to be surprises between now and May I think the squad will end up looking like this.

    He has two definite goalkeepers, David Seaman and Nigel Martyn, and David James will almost certainly be on the plane with them. Seaman though will play in all the games, if fit - if not, in comes Martyn. Eriksson must actually wish he could take a sixth striker or extra midfielder instead of James but he cannot, so hard luck, and who knows, maybe Seaman might break down again?

    The defence is almost as decided as well. Two from Gareth Southgate, Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand will play in the centre, and Gary Neville will retain his right-back berth until he retires. On the left side the recent form of Wayne Bridge has made Ashley Cole's place look less secure. Both will go to Japan however, as Cole can easily play further forward if Dyer fails again. In the long run he may find himself here anyway - especially if the prodigious Bridge moves to a bigger club and develops into an even better player. Completing the defence will be Martin Keown, Jamie Carragher and possibly Danny Mills of Leeds. If Eriksson takes all of them (and they do provide covering options) then someone will lose out in midfield, and old-stager Teddy Sheringham will probably miss out in attack.

    It is in midfield that Eriksson will feel he can hurt the opposition. His first choice foursome picks itself, with David Beckham on the right, Paul Scholes and Stevie Gerrard in the middle and Kieron Dyer on the left. Dyer has missed so much football in the last two years that he will need to be covered both by an attacker and a defender - he can offer a lot of versatility to the squad. It is a shame then that he so has far failed to capture his club form for England. The two friendlies in Korea will make or break his World Cup.

    Two other midfielders guaranteed to go to Japan (but less likely to start) are Joe Cole and Owen Hargreaves. Cole is the current wonderboy of the Premiership, capable of sheer brilliance and sheer ill discipline in equal measure. He is the Gascoigne of his generation, but unlike Gazza his ill discipline does not extend beyond the pitch. For Cole 2002 may be too soon - look for him at Euro 2004 and in Germany in 2006.

    More likely to play is Hargreaves of Bayern München, a player Eriksson rates highly. Already a Champions League winner, Hargreaves may well be playing for Arsenal (as a replacement for Patrick Viera) before too long, and he may well get his chance to impress as the first change substitute this summer. The final midfield places will either go to Trevor Sinclair (unlikely, but possible as England have to take at least two West Ham players to the World Cup!), Nicky Butt or Danny Murphy. Whether one or two of these go depends on how Eriksson decides to use his attackers. Butt and Murphy are similar players, tenacious and happy to work away without always being in the limelight. Murphy though has a knack of getting important goals in big games, and can hit a mean free kick. He can also take the left side of midfield if necessary and Eriksson rates him highly, so may just get the nod. Butt though won many plaudits against Paraguay and he would fee aggrieved to miss out on Japan. Does that mean both then?

    All these midfield choices cannot really be made until Eriksson decides whether to take four or five strikers. He is likely to take four, but given the perilous injury record of Michael Owen he might go for five. Therefore he would have to restrict his squad to seven midfielders. Complications, complications, complications.

    In attack, European Footballer of the Year Owen will start as undisputed number one for the first time in his England career. There is no Alan Shearer around anymore to lead the line - unfortunately - so Owen will be needed even more. Eriksson likes to play Owen and his Liverpool colleague Emile Heskey together, and these two will start against Sweden. Heskey can be used as a battering ram centre forward, or more sensibly can play slightly wider, terrorising full-backs with his pace and power. On his England debut against Argentina in February 2000, Heskey destroyed Nestor Sensini so directly that Sensini was substituted in the first half. Against Italy, Heskey seemed to have the beating of Alessandro Nesta, especially when he could force him wide. Unfortunately, Heskey is a player who blows hot and cold in front of goal, and can have long spells were he simply cannot score. Knowing this, Eriksson has played Heskey in midfield, giving him the problematic left side role to try out. This gives the squad further options, but would require a third striker to partner Owen.

    This will go to England's most gifted, most natural, and most intelligent striker: Robbie Fowler. The only problem is that when they both played for Liverpool, Owen and Fowler just could not play together - they ran into the same spaces, and both tried to create too much for each other rather than take the chances themselves. They are not that similar as players (Owen fast and direct, Fowler more tricky and ingenious) so why they failed to complement each other is a mystery. However it led to Fowler joining Leeds, while Owen partners Heskey and Nicolas Anelka for Liverpool. This has seemed to relight Fowler's fire, and his natural finishing is something Eriksson will definitely take to Japan.

    The final definite place will go to Teddy Sheringham of Tottenham or Darius Vassell of Aston Villa, who therefore fulfils the traditional role of an English player coming from nowhere in the six months leading up to the World Cup with Wayne Bridge (as Owen in 1998, Steve Bull and Paul Gascoigne in 1990, Peter Beardsley in 1986 did before them). Vassell looked international quality on his debut against Holland, and scored an acrobatic goal, which always helps. But against Italy he found the going much tougher, and would have been the fifth and final striker, and lucky to get a game, had he not turned on the talent again against Paraguay. It is now Sheringham (darling of the football press) that is sweating on selection. Vassell has the pace to worry tiring defences. Whether he has the guile to beat them is another matter.

So the squad could eventually end up as:

Goalkeepers - Seaman; Martyn; James.

Defence - Gary Neville; Campbell; Ferdinand; Southgate; Ashley Cole; Bridge; Carragher; Keown.

Midfield - Beckham; Scholes; Gerrard; Dyer; Joe Cole; Hargreaves; Murphy; Butt.

Strikers - Owen; Heskey; Fowler; Vassell.

    Which would be a decent enough group of players, probably capable of going a very long way. Who Eriksson is going to start with against Sweden is less clear cut, but I would expect to see a 4-4-2 formation of Seaman; Gary Neville, Campbell, Ferdinand, Bridge (or Ashley Cole); Beckham, Scholes, Gerrard, Dyer (or Butt); Owen and Heskey. Which is about as strong as England can be at present.

    Because of the daft way FIFA have drawn the teams, France, England, and Argentina are drawn together right from the very start, and at least on e of these teams will go out before the end of the Second Round. That is stupid, because they are probably as good as anyone else in the international game at present, and certainly currently better than Brazil, Germany and Spain - all of whom should make the quarter-finals easily.

    Of course, according to FIFA England are only the twelfth best team in the world, behind Colombia, the Czech Republic and Mexico. It is about time FIFA scrapped these stupid rankings (or made them at least slightly realistic), and it is also about time England fulfilled their overdue potential. I still don't think England will win the tournament - their path is too difficult and I am still sticking with Portugal regardless of whether they lost at home to Finland or not - but you get the idea England will win something soon. And after 36 years, it is about time.



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