While the country's rugby union team continues to evoke national pride, its cricketers and footballers are still subject to endless speculation. After a topsy-turvy weekend, Independent writers test the temperature of our national games; Glenn Moore says poor technique and defensive confusion led to downfall of Vena bles' team at Wembley
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The Independent Online
"It is half-term," suggested Terry Venables after his pupils had been given a lesson by the Brazilian masters of the footballing arts on Sunday. A better analogy might be that long summer break enjoyed by 15-year-olds the year before they sit their GCSEs (or 'O' levels to anyone over 24).

But, while Venables' players lounge on the beach or hang about the shopping mall, he will be busy swotting over the videotapes of the Umbro Cup and planning for next June. That is when England sit their first examination under his tutelage: the European Championship finals.

A few days ago it was fairly clear that England would flunk the test. Clueless against Japan, defensively hapless against Sweden, the Brazilian challenge seemed to offer only the prospect of embarrassment.

It did bring England their first defeat in Venables' 10 matches as coach, and their heaviest home loss since 1972, but there were encouraging signs. For an hour at Wembley, England matched the best.

In the end they were undone by the customary English failing - poor technique - and by defensive confusion due, in large part, to fielding an almost new back four.

In some ways the big successes of the tournament - apart from Brazil - were those English players who did not take part. David Seaman, Tony Adams, Paul Ince and Rob Jones are more sure of their places than ever, although Gary Neville will soon be pushing Jones at right-back.

Matt Le Tissier's case is less sure. He was available, but left out. When England plodded aimlessly towards Japan's defence this seemed reprehensible but, towards the end of the week, one could see how omitting a player who is not prepared to support his team-mates in closing down opponents, or making himself available to receive the ball, could be justified.

However, the impact made by Paul Gascoigne when he came on in each match underlined just how much England need to harness the talents of Le Tissier. His pronouncement that he intended to add to his game whatever Venables believes is missing is a welcome one.

Of those who did play, Darren Anderton and Graeme Le Saux confirmed Venables' sharp eye for emerging talent. The pair were his first debutants 15 months ago and, bolstered by the confidence of regular selection, have blossomed ever since.

On Sunday Le Saux showed he may well be the answer to England's lack of balance on the left of midfield. Unfortunately, in solving that problem, another is created at left-back where, for all his power and experience, Stuart Pearce's distribution and poise is not good enough.

In the long term the solution may be to ape Brazil's formation with three central defenders and wing-backs. While many English players are more comfortable with 4-4-2, Liverpool, like Reading, have adopted 3-5-2 with success. Jones, John Scales and Neil Ruddock are all familiar with the system and Le Saux would fit into it comfortably.

That is for the future, Venables is having enough problems trying to make his players understand what he wants as it is. With the Premiership down to 20 clubs next season he may get more time to teach his defenders not to defend too deep, as they did in the last half-hour on Sunday, and coach his forwards in the virtue of movement and the need to pull defenders about. Teddy Sheringham does this better than anyone, perhaps due in part to his time under Venables, then alongside Jurgen Klinsmann at Tottenham.

Some would argue, looking across the Irish Sea, that England would do better sticking to the Premiership's strengths. Graft and power may beat many teams but it will not defeat the best and, in the summer heat in which championships are contested, it is a self-inflicted handicap.

England's build-up continues in the autumn with visits from Croatia and Switzerland and trips to Norway and, possibly, South Africa. There will be further experimentation in players and formations before the championship. Thus there is still time for the likes of Robbie Fowler or Mark Draper to force their way in, just as Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters did in the spring of 1966.

The feeling remains that the tournament will be too soon for Venables and his youthful crop. The summer of 1998, and the A level examination of the World Cup, may find them at their best.