England move with the times

INTERNATIONAL VERDICT: Venables' vision takes shape n Brown's basic appeal n Republic on the rocks n Wales await new blood
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The Independent Online

Football Correspondent

Within a few weeks the air will resound to the sound of visions, promises and pledges: the party political conference season is almost upon us.

Football managers are not immune to similar rhetoric, and the results are often equally disappointing. Terry Venables has occasionally resorted to hype but, in general, the England coach prefers not to deal in extremes of praise or despair.

When England have struggled under his stewardship there have been none of the "headless chickens" outbursts that marked his predecessor's decline.

Similarly, after Wednesday night's drawn match with Colombia, arguably the most promising of his 12-match reign, there was no shouting from the twin towers about a brave new world, just a satisfied reference to "lots of good things, both as a team and in individual performances".

However, few of the manifestos which will be launched over the next few weeks are likely to have progressed as well as Venables's vision has.

There is still some way to go. England failed to score against Colombia and showed defensive vulnerability, but there was evidence of rich potential in the performance.

Most encouraging of all has been the ability of the much-maligned English footballer to adapt to new ideas and methods. Venables's team are increasingly aware of the need to keep possession at international level, and of the benefits of quick, short passing in attack. The days when a lumbering centre-forward was despatched to "put the frighteners" on an allegedly timorous foreign goalkeeper are, hopefully, behind us. In their place is the incisive movement and intricate close control of Nick Barmby and Steve McManaman.

It was just as gratifying to see an England team defending without a stud-wielding midfield enforcer. Anyone who believes the likes of David Batty make England more solid did not see his wanton waste of possession and conceding of free-kicks against Brazil.

In his place, Venables tried to encourage Steve Howey to push on to Colombia's deep-lying forwards. A side like Colombia, with its packed midfield and lone striker, would normally confuse and overwhelm English sides; while the midfield was outnumbered the defence would stand around waiting for someone to mark.

Howey was thus deputed to step up 10 yards to make the extra man, before dropping back if Colombia's keep-ball was converted into attack. "He was a little bit unwilling because it is unusual for him," Venables said, "but he was doing it in the last 20 minutes and we won a lot of balls. He is mobile and he can do it."

There were times when he was caught out, and Colombia's movement sometimes meant players escaped markers, but such misunderstandings were inevitable. This was the ninth different back four in 12 matches. The central partnership was new, while Gary Neville had not played with any of the other three backs.

The new system meant Alan Shearer received better support than in recent games, although there were still occasions when he was isolated. Shearer has not scored in seven matches for England, but Venables said: "It would be a problem if he was not getting chances, or creating them, but that is not the case. I think he looked very sharp. He led the line very well."

Indeed he did, and Gary Lineker once went seven internationals without a goal, too.

The match underlined, however, how reliant England are on Paul Gascoigne. He was at the centre of most England moves and their sharpness dulled as he tired. Much rests on his avoiding injury.

England's next match is away to Norway in October. David Platt is unlikely to be fit for that game, but Paul Ince should be available, as might Peter Beardsley, Gary Pallister and Rob Jones. All five would have been regarded as automatic choices a few months ago. Now one wonders.

The speed of Barmby's progress suggests that, instead of his being cover for Beardsley next summer, it could be the other way around. Meanwhile, Jamie Redknapp's assured display means Platt and Ince cannot be sure of selection. Platt's poor distribution counts against him, although his goals and industry are a plus. Ince, assuming his game develops in Italy, may regain his place for what will be a physical match in Oslo. One man who will be back is Darren Anderton.

Venables is still talking of adding to this team. Hope yet then for Stan Collymore and Andy Cole, maybe even for Les Ferdinand and Matt Le Tissier?

There was a reminder at Wembley on Wednesday that much can still change. Geoff Hurst was the guest of honour. Would you believe that at the equivalent stage of Sir Alf Ramsey's World Cup build-up he had not played for England?

Hurst made his debut in the February, Martin Peters in May. At this stage only the defence was settled, while 4-3-3 was not introduced until December 1965.

Hope, maybe, for the likes of Trevor Sinclair, Robbie Fowler and Steve Stone. For now the focus moves to Norway, who will attempt to beat England at their own game. One hopes that, instead of joining in to produce an international version of a Premiership match, England outplay them with passing and movement.