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Paul Scholes' myth: England career not wasted by Sven Goran Eriksson
Sven Goran Eriksson is criticised for his handling of Paul Scholes but history has not been kind to the former England manager, argues Adam Bate
Last Updated: 04/04/20 8:41am
When Sven Goran Eriksson went on Monday Night Football recently and named Paul Scholes on the left of midfield in his greatest England team, his long-time critics were ready to come for him again. Sixteen years on from Scholes' apparently enforced retirement, had the Swede still learned nothing? No wonder his England team never won anything.
The idea that Scholes was the unfortunate victim of Eriksson's star system is one that has only grown in the telling since he was asked to play 'out of position' at Euro 2004. The player's decision to retire from international football after the tournament, coupled with his own late-career renaissance, has proved a fertile ground for that narrative.
Scholes of Manchester, as Zinedine Zidane memorably referred to him when calling the United midfielder the greatest of his generation, was someone whose subtle gifts were underappreciated in his own land. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard scored more goals but there is more to it than that - as midfield icons Xavi and Andrea Pirlo were happy to explain.
Add in Scholes' longevity and the story eventually morphed into something it was not. This was a man still playing in a Champions League final seven years after quitting his England career. Nine years on, he was a Premier League champion yet again. And all while operating as a deep-lying playmaker, making Eriksson's dilemma seem nothing of the sort.
Why had he not deployed Scholes at the base of a 4-2-3-1 formation? By then, such a system was ubiquitous in England and beyond. There was no need for any great debate over Lampard and Gerrard - both could have played as attacking midfielders with Scholes behind them as part of a world-class midfield trio whose strengths complemented each other.
Except this is wish fulfilment of the worst kind because it plays with the dates in a way that Eriksson never could. Scholes as a holding midfielder? That might be how he is remembered in the mind's eye and history has, of course, shown that he could thrive there but that was not his game at the time. Even Sir Alex Ferguson didn't use him there until much later.
In fact, for much of the narrow time period from Eriksson taking over as England manager in 2001 until Scholes' international retirement in 2004, Scholes was moved further forwards. The arrival of Juan Sebastian Veron, arguably the pre-eminent deep-lying playmaker in European football at that time, saw Ferguson tweak his system in search of greater glory.
The truth is that Eriksson's fudge was not quite that at all. Gerrard would go on to become a marauding midfielder but he was well familiar with the holding midfield role at that stage in his career - being used there to good effect in England's famous 5-1 win over Germany in Munich in 2001. Playing Scholes from - rather than on - the left made much more sense.
"He came inside," Eriksson told Monday Night Football. "He didn't always stay as a winger. He came in and helped and got the ball. It was not a big problem for Paul."
That chimes with the view expressed by Scholes himself when discussing his England career with former Manchester United team-mate Gary Neville on Gary Neville's Soccerbox.
"It was never a problem for me," said Scholes. "I always felt quite comfortable there. I thought it was a position where it was difficult for the opposition to pick me up. It has never come from me that I finished my England career because I was playing on the left because I had been doing it for United that same season and doing it well and scoring goals."
Even if Eriksson had attempted to find a different solution, perhaps playing Scholes, Gerrard and Lampard in a midfield three, it would have necessitated a change to a 4-2-3-1 formation that would have caused problems elsewhere in the team. Problems for two players who were even more important to England at the time - David Beckham and Michael Owen.
Here too, history has played its part in warping the argument. Beckham has been styled by some as the ultimate celebrity footballer - more clotheshorse than workhorse - but much of the criticism that came his way was unwarranted and has resulted in his abilities being underestimated. Nobody who played with him doubted his credentials.
Beckham was the best crosser of a ball on the planet and at the peak of his powers during this period of Eriksson's reign. Second to Luis Figo in the FIFA World Player of the Year awards in 2001, all but one of his 17 England goals were scored under Eriksson and being pushed wider in a 4-2-3-1 would not have played to his strengths at all.
Such a formation would have been just as unhelpful for Owen, the other star player in England's team at that time. As with Beckham, although for slightly different reasons, Owen's legend has diminished with the passing of the years. Injuries robbed him of his best qualities later in his career, while his reputation has also suffered due to his media profile.
Neither Liverpool nor Manchester United supporters are now in a rush to claim Owen as their own but the truth is that his 2001 Ballon d'Or win was well earned. He scored a hat-trick in the win over Germany and was man of the match in the FA Cup final and the European Super Cup that year. Emile Heskey was alongside him each time.
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Owen was much more effective with a partner up front than as a lone striker and, whatever the revisionism, such was their excellence for England at that time it would have been ludicrous to compromise either him or Beckham to better accommodate others.
Consider the drama of the Greece game. That day is remembered for Beckham's free-kick that salvaged a draw and took England to the 2002 World Cup. What is forgotten is that Scholes struggled badly. "It was just terrible," he later recalled. "Definitely the worst I have played in an England shirt. I just started badly and got worse. I don't know why."
The report in the Guardian wrote of him "playing as if his feet are tied together" and that 2001/02 season was certainly a difficult one for the player. Even the more prosaic BBC talked of his form being "well short of his normally excellent standards" at the time.
It was a campaign also notable for a brief fall-out with Ferguson when he refused to play in a League Cup tie and was fined. Put simply, Eriksson's first full season as England manager coincided with one of Scholes' worst as a Manchester United player. "No England manager ever dropped me, even when I should have been, especially Sven," he has since admitted.
Despite his dip in form, Scholes started in the centre of midfield at the 2002 World Cup with Gerrard injured and Lampard yet to fully emerge as the star he was to become. Partnered by club team-mate Nicky Butt, a revelation in the holding role, nobody can claim Scholes was misused at that tournament. It was only at Euro 2004 that he was forced to the left.
By then, as Scholes has explained, that was also his position for his club, and with Wayne Rooney around, 4-4-2 was now the obvious fit. Had the teenager not been injured early in England's 2-2 draw with hosts Portugal in the quarter-final perhaps glory would have beckoned. Instead, there was more shootout agony. More disappointment.
That was as good as it got for England under Eriksson. For Scholes, it was the end of his international journey. Eriksson tried to persuade him to reconsider and perhaps the real pity here is that he didn't - because the answer was to present itself not too long after.
Scholes' goal drought
Paul Scholes' goal against Croatia at Euro 2004 was his first in 31 England appearances - a run that weighed on his mind.
While Gerrard would go on to surpass the 20 goal mark in three of the next five seasons and Lampard would, remarkably, average that number for Chelsea over each of the next seven years, Scholes transitioned into a different type of midfielder. The subsequent season was the last in which he reached double figures for goals. Ferguson steered him on another path.
"I think my England career could have been better if the pressure had not been on me to score goals every game," Scholes told Neville.
"That was the same with United until I got to 29 or 30 and the manager just said, 'it's not all about goals now, you can just sit and control the game'. That was when I had to change my game and I think if somebody had said the same with England things could possibly have been different."
The important phrase to note there is until I got to 29 or 30. Scholes' retired from international football at 29. Eriksson and England never really saw that version of Scholes. It is a pity. But it is not quite the managerial folly that some would have people believe.