Football: Hoddle is learning the hard way

Glenn Moore believes England's chances have been undermined by too many changes
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The Independent Online
It is the biggest word in the football lexicon, bigger than catenaccio, bigger than Niki Papavasiliou, the Cypriot who gave Newcastle's shirt- stenciller nightmares. The word is "if" and, like many a beaten manager, Glenn Hoddle was resorting to it in the aftermath of Wednesday night's defeat to Italy.

"If that had gone in, it would be a different story," he said in reference to Matt Le Tissier's wayward 41st-minute header. Morning glory? Definitely maybe.

Unfortunately for Hoddle the difference between taking and missing chances is usually what matters at this rarified level, as Gianfranco Zola showed. Not that Italy's finishing was quite as good as Hoddle suggested. "They had one shot at goal and it went in," he bemoaned.

That overlooks one excellent save by Ian Walker from Zola, a bad miss by the Chelsea striker, and two opportunities wasted by Dino Baggio. Five clear chances - more than England, for all their huffing and puffing, snapshots and cheap shots, created all night. Punch-drunk Angelo Peruzzi made England appear more dangerous than they were.

Hoddle sought to justify Le Tissier's inclusion by saying: "It is not a gamble when you feel the game is going to be tight and the door might need to be unlocked. Le Tissier, with his talent, could do that."

So why, if he is so sure of Le Tissier's ability, did he not play him earlier? As Scotland found in their goalless draw against Estonia on Tuesday, even the lesser international defences need unpicking. Le Tissier and Shearer may have played together for Southampton but no one would have suspected it on the strength of their previous joint outings with England, including a full 90 minutes against Romania in late 1994.

The pair were like strangers in the dark, exchanging barely a handful of passes all night. Hoddle admitted as much afterwards. Oddly, Shearer did attempt to find Le Tissier early in the second half when he would usually have shot. A waste, as Le Tissier was beaten to the ball.

That happened too often. His mental anticipation was as slow as his physical acceleration. Unused to the wiles and guiles of Italian defenders, he was second to the ball seven times and just as frequently balked. More unexpectedly his passing lost possession (10 times) as often as it retained it. True, he was involved twice as often in an hour as Zola was in 90 minutes, but that reflected England's dominance of possession. Unlike Le Tissier, Zola never stopped: he was always running off the ball, or harrying defenders who were on it.

The Saint tried, but an early incident betrayed him. A misunderstanding meant he mis-read a Graeme Le Saux pass down the line. Angelo Di Livio went to collect and Le Tissier's shoulders slumped. Then, as he turned to mooch upfield, he suddenly straightened, as if remembering an instruction, and rushed Di Livio. The Italian, surprised, cannonned his clearance into Le Tissier and was lucky to escape with a goal-kick. An admirable effort, but neither automatic nor often repeated. Perhaps if he played for a club where he was less indulged, it would be - he needs the example Gianluca Vialli would set.

Italy worked like metronomes. Cesare Maldini had reason to be grateful for this undervalued legacy from Arrigio Sacchi: it led to the goal.

It began with David Beckham midway in the Italian half. Pressed by Paolo Maldini, he passed to Gary Neville who, confronted by Pierluigi Casiraghi, moved the ball on to Sol Campbell. Zola closed him down and the ball went back, less accurately. Casiraghi, who had already clattered Neville, rushed in and the defender had to hit hopefully forward. The ball was collected by Fabio Cannavaro and, nine unpressurised passes later, Alessandro Costacurta picked out Zola's run.

An exception? No. Remember Casiraghi forcing Ian Walker to hit a hurried second-half clearance? That led, 14 passes later, to Baggio running on to Demetrio Albertini's pass and chipping over. "Good players working hard," as George Graham once said of Milan, "that's their secret."

Apart from the virtues of hard work, which comes naturally to most English players, what else can be learned from Italy? Not to make too many changes, for one. Despite the new coach, their side had seven survivors from the one which drew with Germany in Euro96. England had four.

Injuries enforced several, but the dropping of Gareth Southgate was curious. "I felt his fitness level had not recovered since his injury," Hoddle said.

The midfield four was solid but there was a lack of drive in the centre, with Le Tissier too static and McManaman easily shackled. It meant Shearer was left isolated. Les Ferdinand did not appear to be the answer. He was even less involved than Le Tissier and his arrival made England as predictable as Scotland were when lumping the ball at Duncan Ferguson.

Teddy Sheringham is injured and Nick Barmby out of form but Merson - mobile, strong, quick to shoot and in rich form - should have played. Paul Gascoigne? England need his guile, but has he the legs or discipline?

It was England's first defeat in 36 home World Cup matches and their second defeat of any kind in 29 games. That the other loss was against Brazil, in June 1995, underlines England's continued failure to overcome the very best - against the leading quartet of Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Italy they have won only once in 10 years and 16 matches (and only then because Stuart Pearce's goal-line handball against Brazil in 1990 was not spotted). Fortunately England have a better record against Poland, and will be defending a 24-year eight-game unbeaten record when they travel to Katowice in May for what has become a key game - simply to make sure of coming second in the group, and thus gaining, at least, a play-off place.

Before then, England must beat Moldova at home in April. First up is a friendly, against Mexico. While Hoddle is right to welcome a first chance at experimenting without risk, England are unlikely to derive much benefit. More interesting will be the attendance. Anything less than 40,000 will suggest Hoddle's honeymoon period is truly over.

World Cup results, page 26