Football: 4-3-2-1 and lift-off for Venables and England: New coach plans further experimentation against Germany, Greece and Norway to form strategy for 1996 European Championship

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The Independent Online
THE rest of us may be on cloud nine, but the man of the moment has his feet very firmly on the ground. England beating Denmark was a promising start, but nothing more.

Terry Venables' post-match analysis was as impressively clear-sighted as his team's opening-night performance. Defeating the European champions 1-0 had got him off to a flyer, and had his name ringing around Wembley for all the right reasons, but winning one friendly had recovered barely a few yards of the acreage lost during the Taylor years.

True enough. One result hardly constitutes an era of renewed prosperity, but at least England are in good, progressive hands again. Their play on Wednesday night was that elusive blend of Continental sophistication and British vitality to which so many managers have paid lip service in the past. Venables, praise be, is determined to attain it, and first evidence suggests he is fully capable of doing so.

Naturally he was happy with a win first time out, but while it had gone 'a little better than I had hoped', there were 'areas where we know we can do better'.

The rest of the season, which holds friendly matches against Germany (20 April), Greece (17 May) and Norway (22 May), would be used for experimental purposes. There would be changes, in tactics and personnel, after which Venables would use the summer to formulate his strategy for the 1996 European Championship.

The innovative 4-3-2-1 formation which worked well, to the Danes' confusion, will be shelved for future use while he tries 4-3-1-2 and the sweeper system, to name but two alternatives. Similarly, Graeme Le Saux and Darren Anderton, both of whom made notably successful debuts on Wednesday, will probably give way to Nigel Winterburn and Matthew Le Tissier at some stage on a trial and error basis.

His early tactics would not be consistent, the new coach warned. 'I've got an open mind. I want to see if players can change and adapt or if I've got to stick to one system.'

Shades of the old regime here, but with one vital difference. Taylor was still experimenting, indecisively, after more than three years in the job. Venables is using four friendly matches, not a succession of important qualifying ties, for the purpose.

Like his predecessor, he bemoaned the fact that he had so little time with his players in which to effect 'refinements'. Fortunately, from what we saw on Wednesday, not too many should be needed.

On Tuesday night the Under-21s also beat Denmark 1-0, playing 4-3-2-1, after which their coach, Ray Wilkins, revealed that this was the shape in which Venables wanted all England teams to play. For the time being, at least.

Experiments notwithstanding, it must be an attractive option - provided the tendency to allow the lone striker to become isolated can be overcome. On Wednesday Anderton, Peter Beardsley and David Platt afforded Alan Shearer decent support, but Venables felt he could have done with more help, and would have had it had not Paul Gascoigne been hampered by injury.

'People talk about a diamond shape in which you usually have two up front and one just behind. We did it with one up and two behind him, just in front of three midfield players. What you don't want then is to get three strung out up front and a big gap behind them. Then, the opposition can pass the front three and get at you.

'The aim is to thicken up the midfield, but without going short of players when you get forward. Perhaps we didn't get up there quick enough, but Gazza wasn't 100 per cent. With him completely fit, it would have been better.'

Even with Gascoigne operating at reduced effectiveness, the incisive movement and positional interchanging within the basic framework was light years ahead of the telegraphed plodding we were accustomed to in the dark days when Carlton Palmer was winning nearly 20 caps as a midfield drag anchor.

Beardsley was clever and inventive, as everyone bar Taylor always knew he was, locating Shearer with the same easy accuracy which used to bring the best out of Gary Lineker. Anderton found space at will, taking to international football like a natural, and Platt was Platt. Captain Ubiquitous. Apart from scoring yet another goal - his 21st in 46 appearances - he showed his adaptability, which is the new buzzword, by performing more than one role.

'I thought he did a very good job,' Venables said. 'He got up quickly to support Shearer and made sure there was always a link between midfield and the striker. Then, when Gazza went off, he did that job well, too.'

Crucially, England's midfield maintained discipline in all phases, pushing forward in turn rather than in the sort of reckless numbers which would have left them vulnerable to the swift counter-attack. They played pressing football, yet kept enough men behind the ball to deny the Danes space.

If the tactics were good, so was the temperament. Venables was particularly impressed with the two debutants who, he said, 'were as good as anybody on the field'. Le Saux had played with 'a lot of composure and determination to win'. He was 'a very confident boy', who had a right to be 'very pleased with himself'.

If the new left-back's maturity had come as a pleasant surprise, Anderton was more of a known quantity. Venables had signed him for Tottenham, and was fully aware of the young man's potential.

'He's a guy with a wide range to his game. He's not just a winger, he's not a striker and he's not a midfield player, but if you want him to do any of those things he can. He'll go out wide or come inside, and for the last part of the game he played up front, with Shearer.

'I gave him the freedom to go where he wanted, and he did everything I hoped he'd do - apart from scoring when he had a good chance.'

Everyone had played their part, and there was praise, too, for a defence who had 'kept their concentration well', and for the goalkeeper, David Seaman, who had begun to atone for his Dutch calamity with a good, smothering save to deny Brian Laudrup.

The result apart, what had pleased Venables most? 'The crowd was the real buzz,' he said. They had cheered him, and his team, from first to last, and he was delighted to have rewarded them with a win.

Yesterday it was 'back into mothballs', studying videos for six weeks, before the visit to Berlin. Now that, in the immortal words of you-know- who, will be a real test.

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