Offside, 11 May
Eriksson's bold decision to select Theo Walcott reveals his inability to make the most of a talented England squad.
What’s the defining moment for you during Sven’s tenure as England manager? What single act sums up the Swede’s personality and managerial style?
For many people it was the failure to deliver a rousing half time team talk to his players in the World Cup quarter-final against Brazil. As one anonymous England player reportedly said: ‘We needed Churchill but we got Iain Duncan Smith’. For others it was the fake sheikh sting, or the Ulrika v Nancy tug-of-love, or even his insistence that Peter Crouch ‘has something other players don’t’ (and he wasn’t talking about a store card for High and Mighty, the outsize clothes shop).
For me it’s none of the above. The very essence of Sven-ness to me is the story that he left his stack-heeled shoes outside Ulrika’s bedroom to warn the nanny not to disturb them. No kicking off his clogs in the throes of passion for Svennis but a calculated, almost-anal act of orderliness; his animal lust tempered by caution. And it is this aversion to risk that has characterised Sven’s stewardship of the England football team. He doesn’t make gaffes at press conferences (though undercover sheikhs are a different matter), he doesn’t employ faith healers, he has never taken a bung, he sticks rigidly to 4-4-2, and his teams are effective but unexciting. He is the ultimate ‘safe pair of hands’.
But all our preconceptions about Sven were turned upside down this week when he unveiled England’s provisional World Cup squad. The sound of millions of English jaws dropping at the inclusion of 17-year old Theo Walcott was palpable. Sven, it appeared, had gone completely bonkers. The ultra-cautious Swede had become a reckless gambler staking his reputation on a teenager who hasn’t played a single Premiership game for Arsenal while omitting proven Premiership goalscorers like Jermaine Defoe and Darren Bent (though I expect Defoe to replace Rooney if That Metatarsal doesn’t heal). England’s strike force consists of two crocks, a juvenile and a circus freak.
‘I’m not crazy‘, insisted Sven. ‘It is a gamble, of course, but it is a nice one and he is a great talent…Probably it is not logical, but sometimes you do things on a feeling’. The operative word here is ‘feeling’. Eriksson has never actually seen Walcott play but one can only assume he felt something in his waters.
Sven’s gobsmackingly audacious selection has divided opinions throughout the country. For years we wished that the Swede would throw off the shackles of caution but now he’s gone completely gung-ho we’re having kittens. No-one is quite sure whether the selection of Walcott is an act of genius or lunacy. Football365 branded Sven’s decision as ‘mental’. The Sun described it as ‘the boldest decision Eriksson has ever made in his England career’. Writer Dave Hill said of Theo Walcott on his Guardian blog: ‘His presence is outrageous; it is enthralling; and it may turn out disastrously’.
Some think the Swede has simply gone demob happy. The Daily Mail’s Des Kelly described it as ‘like seeing the office bore mark his last day on the job by leaping onto the photocopier and running off portraits of his bare backside’. Eriksson’s own countrymen were equally nonplussed by the inclusion of Walcott. ‘I have no idea who he is,’ admitted Swedish centre-back Teddy Lucic. ‘I am a little surprised, he must be really good if he is selected for the squad’ (conveniently overlooking the fact that the squad also includes Owen Hargreaves, David James and Peter Crouch).
Sven’s hastily improvised Plan B reveals the extent to which he was relying on Wayne Rooney to lift England above the merely ordinary. Without Rooney England are plodding and predictable. Threatening from set pieces and, providing Michael Owen is fit, dangerous on the break but against defences that sit deep, England often lack guile or creativity. Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon, the other uncapped player in the squad, have clearly been called up to provide the unpredictable dimension that Rooney normally offers. But they are also unpredictable in the sense that they are completely untested at international level. Nobody knows whether they will come off the bench and turn a game or freeze like rabbits in car headlights.
I have no problem with the idea of gambling on a precociously talented teenager. Glenn Hoddle’s decision to thrust an 18 year-old Michael Owen onto the World Stage in 1998 was vindicated. So too was Sven’s decision to blood Wayne Rooney at the age of 17. What is worrying is that Sven appears to have simply traded in his over-reliance on Rooney to weave his magic for a more desperate punt on untested kids to perform similar miracles. This is an implicit admission of failure on Sven’s part to maximise the talents of a star-studded squad. Greece won Euro 2004 with a well-drilled team that was considerably more than the sum of its parts. Eriksson’s England has too often been less than the sum of its parts, relying instead of the individual brilliance of Rooney or a trademark Beckham set piece to overcome less illustrious opponents.
And to think that the English Football Association is paying £5 million a year to a coach who is utterly incapable of galvanising an assortment of superstars into a cohesive football team. Now that’s what I call mental.
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