England blurred by foreign vision

Ian Ridley says the Premiership footballer is not ready for new formations
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The Independent Online
TERRY VENABLES'S plans for England really are quite admirable. It only looked otherwise in the feeble 0-0 draw against Uruguay.

Venables has studied the global game and drawn conclusions from last year's World Cup finals. The midfield playmaker standing and dictating in the centre circle was all but obsolete in more athletic, muscular days. Now there are holding midfield players behind those who attack industriously. In more fluid formations, there are strikers hunting less in pairs up front but coming from wide and deep, pulling defences out of shape.

In seeking to drag the English game into the late 20th century, the coach has sought to fashion a team whose midfield players whirl around a central attacker. It sounds enlightened enough. The real question is whether or not England are ready for it.

More often than not in club football, apart from the oases of Tottenham and Newcastle, who have won nothing yet, the prevailing shape is the tried and trusted 4-4-2. Manchester United have swept all before them with it, the modification being Eric Cantona's roving ingenuity, while Blackburn stand poised for a championship with its solid virtues unencumbered by considerations of what more might be needed for Europe.

It epitomises the domestic game - indeed a lively newish magazine takes 4-4-2 as its title - and suits the psyche. English players mostly like to know what is required of them without having to wonder too much. Ours is a season that demands durability and simplicity is strength.

England duly looked a more threatening side last Wednesday when they played with two wide men in the second half, Steve McManaman replacing the injured Graeme Le Saux and altering the picture. Familiarity bred content.

Venables will persist with his vision, however, though in the longer term it may take the fruition of new coaching initiatives at schoolboy level to breed the type of flexible player he is seeking and whom he may be in a position to influence as possible technical director of the national game. Judgement on whether he is right to do so in the short term should be stayed until after the June matches against Japan, Sweden and Brazil, despite the failings against Uruguay, as England have not had a full match since last November in which to improve the system.

And failings there were. Improvements must be made if England are to win the European Championships on home turf next year. The Uruguayan manager, Hector Nunez, was accurate when he said England lacked fantasy. "That's the cream on the cake but we have to go with common sense first and get that right," Venables said.

To see a born-again Paul Gascoigne as the saviour is still dubious, however, when the forlorn, vulnerable figure at the end of the Graham Taylor era is recalled. Expectation at his return is instead indicative of concern about a lack of inventiveness. Discarding Matthew Le Tissier's potential compounds it.

An apparently sound defence offered consolation but then the Uruguayans were jet-lagged and unambitious. While we are being offered technical exercises rather than competitive matches the FA should be considering lowering prices. The public is, after all, making its views clear by its absence.

As Venables admitted: "We snuffed them out. Now we have got to go on to the next part of our game." England promised only through the young legs of Darren Anderton on the right, where he and the below-par David Platt gave glimpses of the interchanges Venables is seeking.

On the left, the experience of John Barnes and Peter Beardsley was appealing, but its age showed - Barnes played too deep, drawn to his new Liverpool role. He performed competently when assigned the task, as had Barry Venison earlier, but one would expect as much without a pressing opposition. The jeers for Barnes were from those wrongly expecting something more.

As for Beardsley: "What should have happened," Venables said, "is that he should have taken his marker out and let David in to play up front. These little things can change the game. That's what we have got to learn."

It remains to be seen if England can take in the lesson in the time available, for if Beardsley cannot, then probably no one can. The fresher legs of his deputy, Nick Barmby, in his cameo, showed the promise of ingenuity nurtured at the FA School of Excellence, whose first capped graduate he became.

The second was Andy Cole, left out of the starting line-up, Venables said, as he prefers to blood new players when space opens up later in matches. His header against the bar should have served him well in showing how such rare opportunities at this level have to be taken.

Many felt that Alan Shearer would have, and the absence of the star striker among the many waiting to be called is another reason why the jury remains out. But he may not be the saviour of the system. So far he has fulfilled his potential only against the USA, when with Teddy Sheringham alongside him to share the burden, he scored twice.

Sheringham showed himself an efficient link-man again but not, alone, a goal-scoring threat. The striker who has, incidentally, revealed himself most comfortable in the 4-5-1 formation is Stan Collymore.

It is Shearer, more than Gascoigne, who could prove the acid test for the England coach. Should the three summer matches not bring the best out of him, then Venables will have to think anew about how to do so.