England ready to jettison twin towers
That is the main conclusion to be drawn from England's absorbing, but rarely enthralling goalless draw with Croatia on Wednesday night.
While Croatia were disappointing and England's inability to take their chances frustrating, there was nothing to justify the knee-jerk criticism of some observers. It seems that the Croatian emphasis on a patient build- up was misread as lack of interest.
As Steve Stone, who is fast learning the international game, noted: "If we'd taken our chances, everybody would be saying what a great performance it was. I prefer to watch the hurly-burly of the Premiership, but if you go helter-skelter against a team like Croatia, you get punished."
The Nottingham Forest midfielder added: "This may be a test of patience to watch, but it is the only way."
Terry Venables, the England coach, announced himself "encouraged" and had every right to be. There were no bad performances, chances were created - if not scored - and the three-man defence coped admirably with the new shape.
Beforehand, Venables was anxious to play down the fundamental change in tactics, but he admitted afterwards: "They were tentative for the first five minutes, but to expect players to do something so different is asking a lot when you do not have them every day.
"I've been surprised myself at the development of some players and I think they are finding out things about themselves."
Chief among those were the defensive flank players, Gary Neville and Stuart Pearce. Neville's rise to fame has recently stuttered. From being the best young right-back in the country, he is now not even the best young right-back in his own family.
The new position could have been made for him. As a central defender he has good awareness, but a lack of height. As a full-back he is sound, but not spectacular moving forward. Playing this new role accentuates his strengths and hides his weaknesses.
Pearce, while one of those players you would always want in the dressing- room, is not usually thought of as someone you would want playing the ball out of defence. On Wednesday, he played within his limitations and rarely gave it away. His defending was as tenacious as ever and, in the absence of Graeme Le Saux, his place now seems assured.
In front of them, Stone and Steve McManaman showed good concentration in defence while still being involved further forward. Between them, Mark Wright belied his four years' absence. He was as commanding as in Italia 90.
A full assessment of the defence will have to wait until it is put under greater pressure, which will not happen until the championships. What does seem certain is that if Venables, or his ideas, remain - and Bryan Robson appeared to have ruled himself out yesterday - the traditional twin towers will no longer form the heart of England's defence.
The shape of the future has flank players mobile enough to act as full- backs with a ball- playing central defender between them. Alongside, or in front of that defender, will be someone capable of playing in midfield or defence. Paul Ince filled the role at Wembley, Gareth Southgate or Sol Campbell are other possibilities.
This means the partnership of Tony Adams and Gary Pallister, once the core of Venables' team, may not be seen again. While Venables said Pallister could play on the left of a trio, the memory of his match against Norway in 1993, or against Barcelona's Romario a year later, suggests he was being polite.
Wright is better equipped technically than either for the central role, although Adams, in particular, could do it. That is, if he is fit. Venables said if Adams is not ready by Paul Merson's testimonial on 8 May, he would not be considered.
The match made happier viewing for absent forwards. Alan Shearer may have watched Robbie Fowler blazing the ball over from six yards and thought: "It's not so easy, is it?"
Les Ferdinand, whose goal in England's last game seemed to have been forgotten in the pre-match hysteria, will also be feeling less vulnerable.
Not that Fowler did badly. Unexpectedly, it was his finishing that let him down, but his all-round play was thoughtful and promising, although his first touch, like that of most other English forwards, did not stand up quite so well to the greater scrutiny of international football.
Venables now has several selection posers for the next match, against Hungary at Wembley on 18 May. That will be followed by the Asian tour, part of which is now in jeopardy.
Venables has been concerned for some time that the pitch in the Workers' Stadium in Peking is not good enough. It is the same pitch on which David Seaman injured his ankle last May, and according to a Football Association spokesman: "It has not got much grass".
Venables is going to China in early May. If he is unhappy with the state of the pitch, England are likely to play both their matches in Hong Kong.
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