Eriksson not the ideal candidate

September 18, 2006
ChangBy Jen Chang
(Archive)

When considering applicants for a job vacancy, it's generally advisable that one examine candidates' most recent performance in addition to their historical credentials. Yet, with the revelation by The New York Times last week that U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati had met recently with former England national team coach Sven-Goran Eriksson to gauge his interest in the U.S. job, this rule of thumb seemingly is being discounted.

It's clear that, in Eriksson's case, the USSF has chosen to ignore his recent less-than-convincing credentials, seemingly more taken with his winning past at the European club level and the fact that he would represent a big-name capture.

Eriksson
WireImage / Action ImagesSven-Goran Eriksson's England teams were considered underachievers.

This is, after all, a coach who was vilified widely in England after a rather ignominious conclusion to his stint with the English national team.

How bad was the court of public opinion? Eriksson pulled out of an invitation to speak at the FIFA international football symposium in Berlin, citing severe criticism. According to UEFA president Lennart Johansson, "[Eriksson] has had enough. He thinks that people have been saying how incompetent he is."

On the surface, it would appear this criticism is unwarranted. During Eriksson's stint as England coach, the team's W-L-T record was 40-10-17 and he coached England to the quarterfinals of three major tournaments from 2002 to 2006. In the same span, no other European national team was able to match that consistency. At club level, Eriksson has taken teams to unprecedented heights. Under his management, IFK Göteborg remains the only Swedish club to win a European cup competition (the 1982 UEFA cup) and Lazio lifted the Italian Serie A title in 2000.

His hiring as England coach was predicated largely on the widespread belief at the time that he would bring an improved level of sophistication, international experience, tactical acumen and technical enhancement to the English team. Yet a look back at his reign would show that, for the most part, the English squad is no further forward at the end of his tenure than at the start.

Despite its impressive W-L record, England under Eriksson rarely played cohesive or fluid soccer, save a memorable 5-1 demolition of Germany in 2001. Eriksson often defended his team's play on the basis that playing attractive soccer was not the key to winning games but that grinding out results was the more important criterion.

Obviously, winning overrides all else, but the simple fact is that Eriksson undoubtedly benefited from the immense talent at his disposal. However, despite his holding the keys to one of the most talented generations ever to grace English soccer, Eriksson's teams were collectively far less effective than one would expect from the individual parts. If anything, he is guilty of minimizing the talent at his disposal, hardly a selling point when the U.S. position requires a coach capable of maximizing the available talent.

An analysis of Eriksson's actual coaching shows he also performs poorly in three key criteria.

1. Tactical X's and O's

Teams with lesser talent often can compensate to a degree by deploying superior tactics on the field -- witness Greece's European Championship triumph in 2004 and Liverpool's second-half adjustments to beat AC Milan in the Champions League final in 2005. This being the case, one would hope that Bruce Arena's successor would be able to improve in this respect. As I've stated before, despite his many coaching strengths and qualities, Arena was never a great X's and O's guy. Eriksson, although possessing the sheen of a Serie A and European soccer upbringing, has proved to be similarly lacking.

This can be seen in the way he was comprehensively outcoached by Portugal's Phil Scolari, failing to make the necessary halftime adjustments each time Scolari's team eliminated England in the quarterfinals of the last three major tournaments (once with Brazil). His choice of formations and personnel deployment for England was equally befuddling, most recently seen in the way he limited Wayne Rooney's effectiveness as a lone striker in a tepid 4-5-1 formation during the World Cup. As Michael Owen noted in an interview on ITV, "Wayne Rooney is one of the best strikers in the world, and you're cutting one of his legs off if you're playing just one up front."

Not satisfied with staid formations, Eriksson often played players out of position -- and to no one's surprise, it was an approach some players resented. Post-World Cup, midfielder Steven Gerrard revealed in his new book that he was "gutted" when he was asked to play striker against Hungary in a pre-World Cup role and says of Eriksson, "Get real -- I'm an attacking midfield player, not an emergency striker."

2. Attacking mentality

Eriksson often made proclamations about how, by winning, the ends justified the means. However, the reality is that his mind-set is more that of a coach who is scared to lose rather than that of a coach who tries to win. Maybe it's the defensive Serie A breeding, but there's no doubt Eriksson is a highly conservative coach. He often instructed his team to sit back and attempt to hold on to tenuous one-goal advantages, often replacing attacking players with defensive substitutions to cling to the lead. A classic example is the quarterfinal against Portugal in Euro 2004, when even the English players questioned his methods.

"We were [tired] in extra time from all the defending," goalkeeper David James told reporters after the game. "It might have been easier to try and win the game in normal time, the policy of 'what we have, we hold,' seemed to rebound on us."

Added defender John Terry at the time,"Maybe we should have taken the game to Portugal more. One goal is never really enough."

After a World Cup in which one of the chief criticisms of the U.S. was that it lacked an attacking mind-set and played too conservatively, it's doubtful Eriksson will do anything to remedy that.

3. Squad management

Eriksson's reputation as a strategic thinker who pays great attention to detail took a further hit after the 2006 World Cup. Senior players such as Frank Lampard have criticized Eriksson's training methods in Germany, and others have bemoaned the fact that he often failed to define what their exact roles should be and had a lack of an overall game plan.

Further revelations that the English FA supposedly was irritated by Eriksson's unwillingess to offer tactical post-tournament analysis after major competitions place Eriksson in further negative light. It has been rumored that Eriksson's sole contribution to the English FA's strategic think tank during Euro 2004 was his obsession with social arrangements, hotel facilities and privacy requirements.

And building team chemistry might be Eriksson's biggest failure of all. He simply failed to establish any form of rapport and exacerbated the situation with seemingly preferential treatment for then-captain David Beckham. It's telling that the coach's successor, Steve McClaren, has said his chief goal is to establish more of a club atmosphere and team spirit within the England camp.

It's an assessment Gerrard verifies, "In some of our [World Cup] performances, as you know, we struggled and never played as a team. We were guilty of being a little too individual -- all of us."

Coaching aside, there's also the ugly specter of Eriksson's rather dubious ethical behavior. From his widely publicized affairs with TV show host Ulrika Jonsson and former English Football Association employee Faria Alam, Eriksson has an eye for engaging in scandalous and public romantic indiscretions. If that weren't bad enough, he also has shown a disturbing lack of loyalty to his employers, often seeking other jobs on the sly.

Not content with a huge salary increase from the English FA after a public flirtation with Chelsea, Eriksson outdid himself five months before the World Cup with his unwitting participation in the "fake sheikh" charade.

An English tabloid reporter, Mazher Mahmood, lured Eriksson to Dubai under the pretense of being a wealthy investor looking for some investment advice. Eriksson suggested to the reporter that he look into buying English Premiership team Aston Villa and install Eriksson himself as the coach for a "paltry" $7.5 million per year salary. He then proceeded to make revelations about several of his national team players to the "sheikh," which required extensive public relations damage control by the players involved. An example was Owen having to appease the Newcastle fans after Eriksson revealed that Owen was "not really happy" at Newcastle and was only there for the money.

Even if Eriksson's excess baggage is overlooked, it's still hard to see his appeal. He lacks the familiarity with MLS and the U.S. Soccer infrastructure Gulati has stated publicly that he would prefer in a candidate, and he also has a poor track record of effective youth development. To be honest, his only redeeming factor at this point is that he speaks English. When you factor in his likely demands for a highly exorbitant salary, the USSF's reported interest in Eriksson at this point is downright perplexing.

Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: armchairsweeper@gmail.com.