Football: England signal the end of hoof and chase

Glenn Moore on a promising display by Terry Venables' patient performers
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The Independent Online
Roy Hodgson was generous in defeat. "If English football is as bad as all the inquests keep saying it is, it must be a remarkable performance by the coaching staff to get the national team playing like that." So said the Switzerland manager after his team had lost 3-1 to England at Wembley on Wednesday.

Hodgson meant that the English game was not that bad after all. Maybe not, but his comments are more accurate when taken at face value. English club results in Europe have been so consistently poor that there clearly is a lot wrong with their game.

It is partly due to technique, but it is also a question of knowledge and approach. The "remarkable achievement" of Terry Venables and his staff is that they have coached England players not to play the way they do at club level.

The message is getting through. Before Wednesday's match Tony Adams and David Platt both talked of the need for patience; during the game, most of the team showed it. Teddy Sheringham's goal followed at least 15 passes involving every outfield player except Alan Shearer and Adams. Stuart Pearce and Paul Gascoigne were each involved three or more times as England patiently probed for an opening on the left while getting forward in numbers. They then switched the play and attacked from the right.

"I was pleased that when we could not go forward, we did not try and force it and lose the ball," Venables said. "We brought the ball back out, moved them around and made space to get quality balls forward. We changed the play well."

Other chance-creating moves were similarly prolonged. At last the hoof- and-chase "direct-play" philosophy as espoused by Charles Hughes is being expunged from official policy (even if Hughes is still the FA's director of coaching and education).

To be fair to Hughes, his philosophy may have worked 20 years ago, but defences are better organised now, teams defend deeper and in greater numbers, and patience and cunning is usually required to break them down. There is, however, still a case for direct football of a different type - as Steve Stone showed with his aggressive running and preparedness to cross the ball. "He was first class," Venables said. "He looks like he has been there for years, he did so when he first came into the squad. He is a fighter, too, which is useful to have when things are not going well."

Stone's success contrasted with Steve McManaman's ineffectiveness. Tying him to a fixed role on the left, as appeared to happen, dramatically reduces his potency. He is too one-footed to go by defenders on the left wing with any consistency. Yet giving him a free role would affect England's defensive discipline and shape.

Unfortunately there are no obvious alternatives - the only English-born left-footed winger of international class is Ryan Giggs. Darren Anderton is one possibility, if he can regain fitness in time, for his game offers more than McManaman's.

"Can Anderton play on the left?" Venables was asked. "He can do so many things. He can play in a free role, in the centre, on the right or left. He has two good feet. He and Stone could play in the same team."

Between the wide players, it is worth persevering with Jamie Redknapp and Gascoigne. The only reservation is Gascoigne's lack of tactical discipline. Venables noted: "At 2-1 up he left his position too often and isolated Robert [Lee]. I wanted him to boss the midfield and rely on the front four to get the third goal but he was up the left wing and... I don't know." Gascoigne, as ever, can still perplex and infuriate even the most understanding of managers. The hard-working Lee covered well for him on Wednesday, better than Redknapp would. However, Redknapp has a better touch and vision, while Lee looks more of a squad player than a first-choice international.

Further forward, Sheringham's thoughtful performance causes as many problems as it solves. Peter Beardsley has more nous, Nick Barmby more pace and energy, yet Shearer seems happier with Sheringham than either. He is certainly happier playing in a partnership.

England next play Portugal, on 12 December. Venables has just one day - a Tuesday- to prepare for the match. It may not be long enough to switch from playing Premiership rush to international patience.

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