Football: Hoddle and a misguided vision

Ian Ridley contends that confused thinking brought about an all- too familiar result
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The Independent Online
Midnight was approaching and the optimism of "Winsday" was turning into the criticism of Sackcloth and Ash Wednesday. In an ante-room off Wembley's banqueting hall, Glenn Hoddle was - reluctantly and gradually - acknowledging some of England's failings of a few hours earlier.

"There wasn't just enough in and around the area," he said. "The main problem is that we just found it difficult to get behind their defence and get in some decent quality crosses." He admitted, too, that "you have to have better movement".

Those isolated moments, amid a welter of explanation and justification, represented the closest he came to criticism of his England team after the 1-0 defeat by Italy. Pre-match, the coach was guarded to the point of paranoia about divulging anything relating to tactics or personnel. After it, he was defiant to the point of self-delusion.

"I don't think on that performance I can say they were technically better than us. They were on the back foot and might have wobbled had we got an early goal ... It was always going to be limited chances at both ends and we limited them more than they limited us." By the end of it all, Hoddle was convinced that Italy had had only one shot on goal - and that diverted by Sol Campbell past Ian Walker, who might otherwise have saved. Hoddle also wondered whether the nation would tolerate England playing the way Italy had.

The nation surely would have: it would have appreciated the defensive solidity and expertise, the fluid movement through midfield when required, the ability to create and take a chance. If only England could be so dull and negative in Rome come November.

What we witnessed at Wembley were the growing pains of a tyro leader and a misguided vision that, surprisingly for a coach we thought allied pragmatism to tactical sophistication and enlightenment, owed more to fantasy football than the realities of the modern international game.

One feared the worst as soon as the fanciful inclusion of Matthew Le Tissier was confirmed. One sensed the Italians would consequently seize on the opportunity to attack England early on through the space he and Steve McManaman would cede when not in possession, and as their agitated coach Cesare Maldini was urging them to do 10 minutes into the game. Gianfranco Zola spurned a good chance five minutes later; he did not in another four. As the predictable road well travelled was opening out, the mind inevitably went back to preceding eras, notably Graham Taylor's and that embarrassing Oslo night of 1993 when England were beaten 2-0 by Norway. It was almost that alarming.

Back also to the more recent days of Terry Venables, though for a piningly different reason. Venables may have had many foibles of his own, but when it came to assessing opposition, organising a team for the task, compensating for inadequacies with collective responsibility, he has few English peers. He would surely have found ways to pull Italy around the pitch more, instead of allowing them to retain the shape that suited them.

"We always seem to be stretching for things," Venables once observed of the English game. Here it was again. Oohs as a driven cross by Stuart Pearce failed to find an English head; aahs as a 25-yarder from David Batty flashed a few yards wide. Many, including Hoddle, thought England were unlucky. From another vantage point, it looked a familiar tale of Anglo-Saxon broadsword against a stiletto; of a script written in Italy.

Venables knew the value, the necessity at international level, of "hunting the ball down", of attacking once players were in "starting positions", of not getting "strung out". In other words, of togetherness in playing as a team. Little of it was in evidence on Wednesday night. Too often, the reliance was on individualism, both defensively and in attack. Players were left isolated both when confronted with an Italian and when in possession.

It is too easy to heap blame on individuals and seek scapegoats. Poor Sol Campbell was merely compensating, belatedly, for Pearce's preference for the left-back position when he attempted to prevent Zola's goal. Walker, too, was hardly at fault, though his selection - confidence and body having taken a battering this season - did concern, as did the omission of Gareth Southgate, who has always raised his game for his country.

In human terms, one feels for Le Tissier. His selection was an ill- conceived statement of intent. It is not so much that he does not form a pair with Alan Shearer, so wastefully underemployed, but that he surely cannot gel with McManaman.

The idea that both had free roles is simplistic. Both players float - and frequently into each other's work areas. The concept that the game is as much about what is done without the ball as with it passes by the forlorn Le Tissier whose idling career has been indulged at Southampton when it might have been revitalised at more intense clubs. McManaman remains a better bet with the right cast around him, as Venables proved against Holland.

Hoddle was looking for moments of magic. In the Tommy Cooper sense of the word, he got them. Of Le Tissier's talent for inspired flashes there can be no doubt but to stake a World Cup future on them is risky indeed. So too Paul Gascoigne, England's supposed saviour again in his absence. Good players working hard is the simple truism.

Injuries mitigate, none more so than Teddy Sheringham's, but Hoddle compounded the problems by adding inexperience and experiment to a match that demanded nous and continuity. Team changes stop you being predictable, he insisted, but then he knew exactly how the Italians would play without being able to master it.

A problem that Hoddle faces could be the staff that surrounds him. Good men and loyal they may be, but John Gorman, Ray Clemence and Glenn Roeder do begin to take on the look of Graham Taylor's yes-men coterie of under-achieving former managers. One wonders why the experience and expertise of Don Howe, a canny link with the Venables period, has been sidelined so soon.

Of course all is not lost. At the least now, England must avoid defeat in Poland in May and ensure that they finish runners-up in the group. Their record against the elite of world football in the last decade may be poor as accurate reflection of their status, but they can surely be expected to win a play-off against the tier of second-placed teams.

Hoddle is right to view the defeat as a setback rather than with hysterical gloom, but it should not be underestimated as a sobering and salutary lesson. Those of us who urged his appointment, if Venables had to go, will wish him well in absorbing that lesson.

One of Cesare Maldini's final acts before bringing his team to Wembley was to visit his favourite restaurant in Milan, L'Assassino. England's hopes of qualifying for France next year have not been killed off but they have been wounded. Hoddle, who naturally wants to do the job his way but is no stranger to seeking guidance, could do worse to celebrate the end of Lent than book a table at Scribes West before England's next qualifying match.