Football: Hoddle adopts Alf measures

Ian Ridley studies the methods of the national coach on eve of Chile match
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The Independent Online
WHEN you listen to the thoughts of Glenn Hoddle the coach, that old desktop saying springs to mind: I may not always be right, but I'm always the boss. It is something that Chris Sutton should have known last week and it is undoubtedly something that the 45 players who gather today for England A and B matches against Chile this week will have had confirmed.

Sutton's withdrawal from the B team for Tuesday's game at The Hawthorns almost certainly ends his chances of appearing again under Hoddle. His public reaction to being omitted from the senior squad after playing against Cameroon in November was exactly the sort of thing the coach needed to discover. As was Robbie Fowler's response of on-the-surface acceptance.

Privately, both probably felt miffed and no doubt there are other experienced players in the B squad who are not best pleased at having to prove themselves again. It is all part of a ruthless pruning process between now and June over six warm-up matches before the World Cup finals in France, however, and one to which Hoddle, as a single-minded and determined coach, appears ideally suited.

There is something Alf Ramseyesque in Hoddle's approach. He cares not a jot for apparent inconsistencies in his selections - Fowler out, but the also out-of-form Les Ferdinand in the senior squad for Wednesday at Wembley - nor seeks to explain in any detail, partly because he does not wish to inform any rival coach, partly because he does not feel he yet has to. The qualification campaign, he probably believes, has vindicated his decisions and earned him indulgence.

But the guesswork seems to apply to players as well as public and it may have prompted Sutton's over-reaction and also kindled speculation within the squad that Hoddle is about to experiment with a new formation. Either way, it is all part of a strategy over the next five months designed to reach a peak in summer rather than winter. "There is a hell of a lot of competition for places," says Hoddle. "I have got to know exactly how I prefer to play and be flexible, to round it all off into 22 and what's going to suit me, the coach, going into the tournament. I am not going to keep everyone happy."

At this stage, the omissions do seem the more significant, even if Hoddle insists no doors are closed. It might just be that Stuart Pearce and Gary Pallister in defence have seen their international days ended. Hoddle says he has to take into consideration how slowly older players sometimes heal once they pick up injuries, given World Cup games every four days. And what of Matthew Le Tissier, initially Hoddle's prodigy but now prodigal?

According to Hoddle, we are reading too much into the dropping of Fowler - and indeed Ian Wright, who could well be fit. Which brings us to the theme of the week: looking at options, both in personnel and formation. Hoddle had wanted, for example, to play Jamie Redknapp as a sweeper in the B team before injury intervened. It is why Fowler's young Liverpool striking partner Michael Owen gets his chance, and Hoddle says he will play some part in the game, to make him the youngest England cap this century - "if he doesn't jump over the Colditz fence and do something".

Hoddle adds: "Up front is the area of the pitch where there is the biggest gap between league and international football. There are things the jury is still out on, because of his age and because he hasn't played a lot of European football. In five years he will have and we will know. Short- term, I have got to know whether he is right for this tournament. If he isn't, he won't come. If he proves he can do it, he's got a great opportunity.

"As an 18-year-old, I can only compare him with Ryan Giggs, who was 16 playing in the under-18s when I first saw him. I remember coming back and saying 'I have just seen something special'. I think Michael has that potential. He is doing things against good experienced players. If he can do them against the best in the world, well..."

Owen's strengths, beyond his pace which alarms even the most experienced defenders, are a confidence to run with the ball and a determination to go for goal, as well as upper body movement that can throw markers and a bona fide finisher's eye. He can play either as a withdrawn striker or "off the shoulder" of the last defender. As Hoddle noted, during the Under-21 game against Greece in December, even when not playing especially well, Owen still inspired that frisson of anticipation whenever the ball came to him.

The coach has also identified another intriguing possibility. "The expectations of strikers to score goals at this level are so high that sometimes it's a burden. It's why in the World Cup unknowns have come through rather than the so-called stars. We have that possibility with quite a few players."

Hoddle, however, echoes Alan Hansen. "You don't win anything with kids," he argues. "Even Manchester United had Schmeichel, Bruce, Pallister and Cantona. Eight or nine kids in a team will win you nothing."

The selection of Dion Dublin, 10 years Owen's senior and who will also play some part in the game, has another agenda; that of versatility. He was, Hoddle says, close to being selected as a defender last season. "He is an astute player. At international level, intelligence is very high up on your list of priorities."

Hoddle says that Alan Shearer will not start the match, which could mean that the understudy who has so far thrust himself forward this season, Andy Cole, will do so. It may be opportune, also, to pair him with his club-mate Teddy Sheringham, who missed the Cameroon game.

The pair could be used in the formation they adopt with Manchester United. "In a certain game, in a friendly, we will go with a 4-4-2 and have a look at that," says Hoddle. "It's all about preparation for a tournament. There is opportunity this week to change things. If we lose the game it's not a disaster. We will have learned a lot of things, like maybe it's the wrong system. I feel we are going to come out of the game with a shape I am going to look to play."

Chile, he believes, will themselves play a 4-4-2 and have been chosen as opponents because they resemble - "certainly temperament-wise" - England's group opponents Colombia. They will feature a zonal defensive four and two holding players in midfield. The individual threat is likely to come from Marcello Salas, the striker Manchester United tried to sign but who has gone to Lazio for pounds 13m.

As with everything he does, there is method in Hoddle's apparent inconsistencies; he wants, for example, to talk to Ferdinand and may even release him for the B squad. As the Sutton case has shown, he does not feel inclined to explain fully and even the players are not always privy. "I am not going to open up with every idea I have got," he says.

"I have got only one thing on my mind. That's 22 players in June. Players know there is still an England shirt there and they have got to go hell for leather to get in among those 22 shirts. I can't lose. I can only lose if we don't do well in the World Cup but now there are six friendlies to experiment."

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