Football: Absence of Gascoigne exposes limitations

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The Independent Online
THE purpose of this week's twin internationals with Chile was to broaden Glenn Hoddle's options as he plots England's World Cup course. Instead, the 2-1 defeat for the B team on Tuesday and the 2-0 reverse for the seniors on Wednesday has narrowed them.

He will not have thought so as he sat fidgeting on the bench, waiting for a chance to play, but Wednesday night at Wembley was a good one for Paul Gascoigne. In his absence from the fray, England's midfield was revealed to be no better than workmanlike, their limited collective vision exposed by the expansive performance of Jose Luis Sierra on the opposing side.

The Chilean's 50-yard pass for Marcelo Salas's breathtaking opening goal was hailed by Hoddle as one of the best he had ever seen, but it was by no means his only incisive one. There were at least two more chance-creating balls which fell into the modern parlance of "key pass", along with a series of quick-witted lay-offs which knitted together the South Americans' midfield.

Against this cohesion England could only offer the ankle-tapping David Batty and his eager but limited cohorts, Rob Lee, Nicky Butt and Phil Neville. Each have their qualities, Batty is hard to play against - although he came dangerously close to overdoing it - Butt is composed with the ability to go past people, Lee has an eye for goal and Neville is athletic and two-footed.

None, however, can see a pass like Sierra or Gascoigne, or, to an extent, the injured trio of David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Jamie Redknapp. The best England passing of the week came from Paul Merson in Tuesday's B- team match at The Hawthorns and he faded as the team lost shape and heart in the second half. Eight years on from Italia '90, it seems England are still reliant on the unreliable Gascoigne.

It is not just a matter of Gascoigne's passing ability, it is also his desire for possession. Hoddle admitted that no one demanded the ball the way he does and the back three were thus offered limited options when in possession. This usually meant, after briefly passing among themselves, they then either played a hopeful hoof towards Dion Dublin's head or opted to kick over the top for Michael Owen to chase.

It was thus also a good night for another spectator, Gareth Southgate, who is more comfortable in possession than most English defenders. It also compounded the misfortune of neither Redknapp nor Rio Ferdinand being fit enough to play as sweeper for the B team.

After the defeat, the heaviest of his 15-game reign, Hoddle said: "We didn't want the ball enough and struggled to pass it out from the back. As a team we did not pass well, did not defend well and became stretched out."

Yet Hoddle himself must bear a large share of the blame. He did pick one passer, Teddy Sheringham, but then pushed him too far forward to influence play, leaving the midfield under-strength in numbers and quality. This was why England became pulled out of shape, as they had against Poland at home when he paired Alan Shearer and Les Ferdinand in attack with Steve McManaman behind them.

The error was tacitly admitted when he asked Sheringham to play in a deeper role at the start of the second half, but was then compounded by bringing him off for Shearer, giving England a bizarre forward line of three strikers.

While his desire not to withdraw Dublin or Owen was understandable, the fumbling last 20 minutes which saw England hoisting balls aimlessly into the box will have done neither much good.

Owen emerged unscathed judging by his confident - and justified - post- match assertion of: "I was quite pleased with my performance."

Dublin was also upbeat, but his constant reference to it being "great to wear the white shirt of England" betrayed a belief that he did not really belong - in stark contrast to Owen, who was only surprised at being capped so early, not at the honour itself.

Dublin began well, linking cleverly with Owen, but his inexperience of the wiles of international defenders showed as he failed to make clean contact on any header near goal and he was eventually marginalised. So far the quoted judgement by Gordon Strachan, his manager at Coventry, that he could be an "international-class centre-half but only a decent centre- forward" is half right.

Owen is more likely to be persevered with. His pace and alertness made him a constant threat. He created several half-chances for others and was unlucky not to score himself. Hoddle, who has now capped 39 players and called up 50, said Owen "did extremely well. He did some exciting things and proved he can get on the back of defenders".

England's next match is in Switzerland on 25 March. This is followed by matches with Portugal and Saudi Arabia at home and Morocco and Belgium in Morocco. There are also some B internationals.

It is not much, and fortune will play a large part in the fate of individuals. The likes of Redknapp, Les and Rio Ferdinand, Merson and Andy Cole will need to stay fit if they are to seize a place when the squad for France is named on 2 June. Once again, however, it will be Gascoigne's fitness - mental and physical- which will be under most scrutiny.