England's flair for flexibility

Euro 96: Powerful case for defence as Venables is rewarded for entrusting his players with responsibility for systems; Glenn Moore in Hong Kong sees a squad honing their communication skills

It was all very simple. Gareth Southgate had a quick word with Tony Adams, the captain motioned to the Neville brothers, and the message went out to the midfield: "Four at the back today, boys." Within minutes England, having taken to the Workers' Stadium pitch in Peking on Thursday prepared to play three at the back, a deep midfielder and all-purpose flankers, were back in the cosy world of 4-4-2, albeit with split strikers. All it required was intelligence, communication and confidence.

Yet even a year ago such a development would not have been contemplated. While several English club sides had experimented defensively, none had dared introduce a flexible system. The thought of entrusting players - defenders at that - with decision-making was inconceivable. The national side had remained rooted to tradition - it was the one part of the team Terry Venables did not tinker with in his first 18 months. He had only changed the personnel through injury. When available, the back four was Rob Jones, Adams, Gary Pallister and Graeme Le Saux. At least, went the cry, he's got the defence sorted out.

But he was only just beginning. At the World Cup Venables had seen how the preference for split-strikers, one up front, one tucked in behind, had caused problems by making defenders uncertain whether to go with their man and leave the space behind, or mark the space but leave the man. He had then adopted a similar practice, playing Teddy Sheringham off Alan Shearer. But, while he had begun to set the puzzle, he had yet to solve it when posed by other teams.

Faced with such a dilemma most English defenders mark space - they do not feel comfortable in midfield where their ball control lets them down. But that means the team becomes outnumbered in midfield. As the match against Romania illustrated, good sides, allowed a man spare, can make England chase shadows for long periods. The domestic solution, adopted by teams like Aston Villa and Liverpool, was to play an extra central defender and push the full-backs up, making five in midfield. But this made the side top-heavy with defenders, and still left them square at the back.

When played in Europe the third defender is a sweeper, or libero, who provides cover for the markers and adds a dimension when pushing up. This option was not available to Venables: there was no such player available in the English Premiership.

Enlightenment was at hand. It came first from Don Howe, the FA's technical co-ordinator and an assistant to Venables. He went to look at the Ajax system and came back brimming with ideas. About the same time,Venables encountered Louis van Gaal, the Ajax coach, on a coaching seminar in America.

"They play a central defender with two full-backs," said Howe in China this week. "We thought we could do the same. We began talking to the players about it, in team meetings and in conversation. We began working on it in training, doing very hard sessions. I would take them and we would do 15-30 minutes, then we would swap the defenders around and go again, three times a session. It was hard, physically and mentally."

Venables began encouraging his central defenders to step out. Steve Howey did so against Colombia, but with no great confidence. Four matches later Gareth Southgate came in against Bulgaria. He stepped out a bit but it was his full debut and he was wary of over-committing. So it came to Croatia, and the great leap forwards. The onus was on the flanking defenders, Gary Neville and Stuart Pearce.

"You need the right personnel," said Howe. "Gary Neville was ideal because he had played centre-back and full-back. Stuart had more adapting to do; we worked hard with him and it was not a problem for him."

"It is not always easy to change things with older players," added Venables after the team had arrived in Hong Kong. "They can be set in their ways; they have been successful with the old system and want to keep it. You need players who are open to new ideas. The bonus is if you can get older players like Adams and Pearce on board, they will lead other players."

Adams has been portrayed for so long as the archetypal English defender, strong in the air, tough in the tackle, slow on the turn and worrying on the ball, that his ability to adapt has been questioned. This is forgetting how accomplished he was as a teenager with Arsenal before he became identified with sterility and offside traps.

Adams himself has no doubts. "You put labels on people but I feel comfortable in this system. I am delighted that the manager has the brains and the knowledge of the game to do it.

"If the opposition do not play three-up, why have we got four back? Years ago we had the four of us just standing there - now I say 'Off you go Gareth, go in and force the issue up front'." Southgate nearly did so in dramatic fashion on Thursday, bursting forward from a defensive four to shoot over early on.

"I think it is a positive way of playing three at the back," Gary Neville said. "You only have three defenders with two wingers coming back. It is about the discipline of knowing your own job and communication. It was very noisy on Thursday, but that helps in a way. You keep in eye contact more and you have to rely on your ability to defend well rather than rely on shouts.

"Playing in a three suits me more than playing full-back or centre-back," Neville added. "I have played both positions from a young age but this one allows me to get forward a little bit, without having the onus to go forward and support attacks all the time, and it allows me to defend as well."

Howe realises the system has yet to be truly tested. "We will only find out how good it is when we play an Italy or a Germany. No one else does it except Ajax, but we could lead the way. Clubs often follow the national team - if they are successful." The easing in of Adams and Phil Neville - who was sent into the stands last Saturday for the Hungary game to watch the system - probably justifies the Asian trip, as long as there are no complications with Gascoigne's blood poisoning, no one is injured today, and there is no hooliganism.

sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect