Football: England exposed by nimble feet

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England 0 Saudi Arabia 0

GLENN HODDLE entered the room for his final media debriefing on Saturday evening, looked up at the television, and saw Darren Gough caught off Allan Donald to complete the defeat of England's cricketers in the second one-day international.

The timing, after England's dismal draw with Saudi Arabia, seemed symbolic of another grim day of English sporting fortunes but at least Hoddle could console himself with the thought that his players had not actually lost.

They did not exactly cover themselves in glory though and while, as with the cricketers, the real tests are yet to come there is a growing fear that the draw in Rome last October will prove the high-water mark of England's World Cup campaign.

So far 1998 has seen England lose to Chile, draw with Switzerland and the Saudis and gain a flattering victory over Portugal. At Wembley, David Seaman apart, England were unconvincing in every department. Though the loyalists rallied to produce a cheer during the team's sheepish farewell - the lap of honour having been reduced to a wave from the centre circle - the boos that greeted the final whistle were a more accurate reflection of what they had seen. That David Batty, who might not have ended the match had the referee followed World Cup guidelines, ended up man of it, said everything.

The attack looked in need of Viagra. With Teddy Sheringham low on confidence, and Alan Shearer looking as if he was concentrating on keeping his temper, England rarely looked like scoring despite a steady supply of half-chances.

The Saudi's finishing was equally impotent which was fortunate as England's defence looked uncertain and flat-footed whenever it was faced with the sort of quick movement and nimble feet which will be common in France.

This is nothing new, Sol Campbell was equally exposed by Marcelo Salas' fleet of foot in February and even Thomas Brolin once jinked through an English defence. Since the problem will not be resolved until English defenders have had several years of experience against such forwards, the interim solution is midfield cover of the sort Arsenal have established this season. However, on Saturday the English midfield lacked discipline as well as inspiration.

"Sometimes we want to put an offensive head on in Wembley friendlies rather than the hard work of defending as a unit," said Hoddle. "Too many times defenders were left one-on-one. Players have to take more responsibility."

In midfield David Beckham was played inside with Darren Anderton resurrected on the right flank. He showed some nice touches and Beckham passed well at times but neither committed defenders in the way Paul Scholes did around the box and Paul Gascoigne, despite his slowing pace, attempted to do later on.

Hoddle said he wanted to give Anderton 90 minutes in the wider position but that he and Beckham might swap roles. He complimented Beckham's passing, while adding he "got a bit sloppy" and indicated it was a case of playing him wide for his crossing ability - "he's the best in the country" - or inside where he has a greater range of passing options.

Gascoigne's introduction was being demanded by a restive crowd after just seven minutes of the second period but, when he came on on the hour, he barely justified the call. He did attack players but gave the ball away too often and is still far from full fitness. However, it remains obvious that, in the absence of Ray Parlour and Matt Le Tissier (neither of whom could be guaranteed to open international defences) he is England's best chance of making a real impact in France.

His partners will have to be carefully chosen. Judging by Saturday England, if playing with one or more attacking wing-backs, will need two holding players to protect their square defence. Batty and Ince are the likely ones though Batty went forward too much on Saturday. Though his eye-catching forays helped him win the official man of the match award they created problems at the back as no one filled in for him.

Batty might also have been dismissed. Hoddle paid tribute to his restraint but he went through one Saudi after 18 minutes with a tackle which could bring a red card in the finals. A later foul by Mohammed Al-Jahni on Ian Wright would definitely have done so.

England had started brightly, Anderton, Beckham and Scholes moving the ball slickly as England created a number of opportunities. The best fell to Sheringham, left unmarked after Scholes and Shearer had opened the Saudis up. His lack of form showed as he allowed Mohammed Al-Daye to make a sharp save.

The goalkeeper also denied Gareth Southgate while Andy Hinchcliffe and Shearer put good chances over. By then the Saudis, with Sayeed Al-Owairan orchestrating in midfield and Sami Al-Jaber lively in attack, had created a few chances of their own with Seaman saving well from both of them and Khalid Al-Muwalid.

Shearer and Al-Jaber had chances before England made a series of substitutions, including that of Hinchcliffe who had probably played himself out of the 22. With Wright looking sharp they were more threatening but remained vulnerable at the back.

The worrying aspect for Hoddle is that add Ince, Graeme Le Saux and Gascoigne to this starting line-up, and you have the team he probably wants to field against Tunisia on 15 June. They will be of a similar standard to the Saudis who, though organised, were often naive, generally lightweight, and should have been beaten. France and Denmark, their group opponents, may be alarmed by this result but they will be calmed when they see the video.

Hoddle will also be studying the tape this week and salient extracts will be shown to the team as they continue their preparations in La Manga, their base for this week's friendlies against Morocco and Belgium. The question, as they head for France via Spain and Casablanca, is will they be able to look back in years to come and say "we'll always have Paris?"

ENGLAND (3-5-2): Seaman (Arsenal); G Neville (Manchester United), Adams (Arsenal), Southgate (Aston Villa); Anderton (Tottenham Hotspur), Beckham (Manchester United), Batty (Newcastle United), Scholes (Manchester United), Hinchcliffe (Sheffield Wednesday); Sheringham (Manchester United), Shearer (Newcastle United). Substitutes: Gascoigne (Middlesbrough) for Beckham, 60; Wright (Arsenal) for Sheringham, 60; P Neville (Manchester United) for Hinchcliffe, 74; Ferdinand (Tottenham Hotspur) for Shearer, 74.

SAUDI ARABIA (4-5-1): Al-Daye (Al-Tae); Al-Jahni (Al-Ahli), Al-Khlaiwi (Al-Ittihad); Zebramawi (Al-Ahli) Solaimani (Al-Ahli); Al-Zahrani (Al- Ittihad), Amin (Al-Shabab), K Al-Owairan (Al-Hilal), S Al-Owairan (Al- Shabab); Al-Muwalid (Al-Ahli); Al-Jaber (Al-Hilal). Substitutes: Al-Dossary (Al-Wedah) for Amin, 77; Al-Temiyat (Al-Hilal) for K Al-Owairan, 77.

Referee: D Zol (Netherlands).

Bookings: Saudi Arabia: S Al-Owairan, Al-Jahni.

Man of the match: Seaman.

Attendance: 63,733.