Football: England held back by crisis of confidence

Poor passing against France was a symptom of deeper problems the new coach must cure.
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The Independent Online
AS MIDNIGHT approached on Wednesday night Howard Wilkinson wearily attended the last of his tasks as a debutant England manager, a final media debriefing.

He sat, looking shell-shocked and asking in vain for a brandy, in Wembley Stadium's Red Bar, a hospitality room off the main banqueting hall.

On the walls were photographs of famous Wembley scenes including that picture of Wolfgang Weber equalising for West Germany in 1966, a curious choice for a picture entitled "England win the World Cup".

The chances of a repeat success seemed as distant as ever following England's eclipse by France, the current world champions, a few hours earlier and Wilkinson knew it. He also had a fair idea why.

"We kept giving the ball away," he said. "We'd be defending, working hard, staying with people, staying on our feet, staying patient, getting the ball back and then thinking, `thank God, now let's... Oh Christ, we've got to do it again'. We do it again, get it back, think `here we go... Oh Christ, do it again'. That was the pattern of the evening.

"I can see, in my mind right now, 15, 20, 25-yard passes where, 99 times out of 100, the player concerned would think: `I've got three passing options, we've just got the ball back so let's play the simple one, get our shape back, keep the ball from them, and take it from there.' And then we gave it away for fun."

A sense of deja vu filled the room. We had heard this before, in this same room, from Glenn Hoddle. What was it that made perfectly decent international footballers, who had the ability to hit an accurate 25-yard pass 50 times out of 50, into men with the pass selection and execution of a Sunday morning park player?

Wilkinson confessed that at half-time the only answer he had to the malaise was to tell his players not to do it. It would appear that the week's events, and the quality of the opposition, exacerbated the lack of confidence within the team to the extent that players often neither trusted themselves nor their team-mates to give or receive the ball. As a consequence France had a staggering 70 per cent of possession in the second period.

The whole team were affected. The goalkeeper, too, often hoofed the ball upfield, a 50-50 ball at best; the defence, while good defenders, are not collectively good at distribution; the forwards, when they saw the ball, did not hold it up. The biggest problem was in midfield with Jamie Redknapp and Paul Ince especially disappointing.

Compared to France's movement England were static. They also became increasingly stretched out raising further doubts about the ability of Alan Shearer and Michael Owen to work together. The situation cried out for a younger Peter Beardsley or Teddy Sheringham to link the play.

"The longer the game went on the longer the passing became and we missed that link between back and front," Wilkinson said. By the time Paul Scholes came on it was too late and he may not be the answer anyway. Matt Jansen, whose arrival transformed the under-21 game at Derby the previous night (the first half of which resembled the second half of the senior game), could be the solution but he is inexperienced and the need is urgent.

"We cannot look beyond the Poland game," said Wilkinson of the 27 March European Championship qualifier. "Our situation is akin to having to win the last three games of the season to stay in the division. Poland is the first one."

In the longer term Wilkinson, in his capacity as technical director, is building towards emulating the French system of coaching and development which led to their World Cup triumph last summer and, as Wembley saw, continues to reap reward. "They have developed an international team that is like a club team on and off the field," Wilkinson said. "It takes time."

In reference to the French reaction after they failed to reach the 1994 World Cup finals (which was to move Gerard Houllier to the post of technical director and promote his assistant, Aime Jacquet, as coach], Wilkinson added: "Because of football's place in their culture they would not have been as disappointed nationally as we were which makes it easier to plan long-term. The result did not govern them, they saw it as part of a process.

"Look at the way they put Theirry Henry in the under-21s on Tuesday. There would be a right stink here if someone was put back into the under- 21s but they thought that was the right thing for the whole picture."

When asked for the positives that could be drawn from the match, he paused for 25 seconds before answering: "We did not start off too badly in terms of possession but we got worse as the half went on. Then, when we were not getting the ball we stopped them getting behind us for about 20 minutes. After that you have to admit we were beaten by a better team."

Poland, who were held by Finland on Wednesday night, in a friendly played in Malta, will not be anywhere near as good as the French. Nor will they be pushovers. They largely outplayed England at Wembley two years ago and they have a number of technically gifted players including the late- developing striker Miroslaw Trzeciak, who plays for Osasuna, in Spain.

"We've got the players to get a result against Poland," Wilkinson said. "I don't think tonight was typical of our ability. There are plenty of performances which have shown we are better than that."

If England are to prove it confidence must, however, be restored and Wilkinson added: "Tonight will not have done their confidence any good." Thus the clamour for Kevin Keegan.