Football: England's world out of shape

World Cup countdown: A week of window dressing with the genuine merchandise left in the stockroom
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Ian Ridley

in La Manga says there are

still alarming elements

in Hoddle's game plan

GLENN HODDLE says he knows the shape of his 22, his team indeed, and is confident that they will respond more sharply come the real deal of the World Cup finals. The hope for the England coach, and a nation which has now sat through three games as grim as can be remembered for a decade, is that the shape is not that of a pear.

After the goalless draw against Saudi Arabia, whose merits were put into perspective by Norway's 6-0 win over them in midweek, came further performances that provoked cause for concern, a listless 1-0 win over Morocco and a soulless draw against Belgium - a game that cried out for the David Platt of 1990 - both in Casablanca.

They reminded you of the film of the same name; none of its exquisite moments or memorable dialogue but reminiscent of the mess in its making that saw constant script revisions and some leading characters criticising the production. The word is that there was actually a full and frank - though calm and constructive - England team meeting early in the week, which helped clear the air after the Saudi struggle.

An irony is that England would have won the Hassan II tournament had they not lost a meaningless penalty shoot-out to Belgium on Friday night. In fact, the whole exercise struck many as meaningless, given that most of the players who will not even go to France took part and that most of the first XI did not.

Naturally, Hoddle insists it was all worthwhile, beginning with the travelling in and out by air from their Spanish training camp, though England will not be flying to matches in France on the day of them. It was, he says, valuable in moving on the fitness of some players and helping to determine the final two places in the squad that he was pondering at the beginning of the week.

"We needed these games to put into practice things from the training ground and to find out about some players' temperament," said Hoddle. "I didn't want to show my hand too much, which I haven't done. We have done a lot of work behind the scenes and we know as a group of people that we are on course.

"As a coach, the more you find out about your opponents, the greater feeling you have of overcoming them. There's a few teams out there not sure of how we are going to shape up." They should be, however. Much of what has gone on this past week has been mere window dressing. The genuine merchandise may have stayed in the stockroom, but in reality we all know what it looks like.

And it remains the 3-5-2 of the key qualifying match against Italy in Rome, with Alan Shearer replacing poor injured Ian Wright, whom Hoddle would certainly have taken to France as cheerleader and substitute. It was seen again in the 3-0 win over Portugal in April, when on this occasion Gary Neville replaced Gareth Southgate and Paul Scholes the injured Paul Gascoigne as the only departures from the previous full-strength line- up.

As further preparation for the opening match against Tunisia in Marseilles on 15 June, England will field that team, Hoddle says, in a match behind closed doors against a French club, possibly Cannes, in 10 or 11 days' time. Thus would it seem that the 4-4-2 on view last week has been only to explore an option or to throw foreign scouts off the scent. "It doesn't suit us with the ball. A back three gives us more options," Hoddle insists.

"Our World Cup head was put on against Portugal," Hoddle added with another variation on his pet phrase. "Other times, against Chile and Switzerland, gave us an opportunity to look at other players. If people want to look at our results and say that's discouraging, then fine, let them think that, but we know exactly what is being worked out for the tournament.

"You have got to look at the circumstances," he added, countering criticism of England's showings last week, which in performance terms and in recent memory were only overshadowed by the European Championship finals of 1988 and defeats by the Republic of Ireland, Holland and the Soviet Union; considerably better opposition than the recent trio.

"Whenever we have had a real chance of playing our strongest side, we have got fantastic results," Hoddle went on. "We won a tournament last summer [Le Tournoi] against good opposition, we qualified from probably the strongest group. If you are saying there are doubts about us, then what about Germany who drew with Finland? Or Holland who drew with Cameroon, who we beat, and Denmark who lost 3-0? These are not times to be judged. If anyone judges us now they are fools."

Perhaps so, and England clearly were not seriously stretching themselves in the Moroccan tournament last week, but some of us can dare to be daft at times; are paid to do so in fact. This may be phoney-war time but there are still some alarming elements of England's game, both in team terms and in the form and fitness of some senior individuals.

Against average opponents in Morocco, the passing was poor in the first half to the point where they barely created a chance. They also looked panicked by pace running at them. Fortunately, so too did the home side; but then the hope is that any nation will when the precocious Michael Owen is the runner. It is not just his pace either. Owen has wicked upper body movement that simply throws defenders into committing themselves. He is a brave boy, too.

The fear, once more, is that amid this high tempo, puffing Billy Paul Gascoigne continues to labour. At least he played 90 minutes against Morocco though little should be read into his last few minutes when he was prominent with a couple of good chances; as at Euro 96, he did not have the stamina to take them.

Then, against Belgium, he remained far too deep, probably concerned about his ability to get back once he had ventured forward, in areas that render his game ineffective. One pass through to Les Ferdinand did show his capability but compare that output with the half a dozen penetrating balls by the inventive Danny Boffin, whom Gascoigne often lost in Belgium's midfield. By contrast, Boffin was gliding menacingly about the pitch - and he is struggling to make Belgium's starting 11.

Hoddle is forever nursing Gascoigne along, because of the video replays in the mind's misty eye which we all wipe clean now and then, but the time is coming when the bullet might have to be bitten - and given. The image sprang to mind as his wounded head was bandaged together against Belgium.

David Beckham provides the passing range in midfield, but does not go past players. Do England then lose a crossing option? In which case, Darren Anderton's rehabilitation becomes important, along with Steve McManaman's dribbling elsewhere in the team. It was a saving grace of the Morocco match to see him on the ball in the second half in areas suitable to his skills.

These and several other questions will occupy Hoddle anew once his weekend's final deliberations on his chosen 22 bear fruit. And we will know more tomorrow about the shape of that fruit.