Football: Hoddle refuses to rest on his defence

Glenn Moore in Montpellier sees a plan come together for a visionary coach
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The Independent Online
After justifiably eulogising about his team's defensive record Glenn Hoddle concluded his final press conference before last night's match with the thought "we'll probably concede three or four after saying that".

England avoided that fate last night on the way to another morale-boosting victory, but still showed that they are yet to adapt fully to Hoddle's unfamiliar defensive strategy.

"I have thought for a long time that we are the poorest defenders in the world," said Hoddle. He was referring not just to the poor concentration and technique of many Premiership defenders but the whole defensive philosophy of marking zonally rather than man for man.

Hoddle wants to field a sweeper and two markers, as done by Germany and Italy, and has been working extensively with his defenders at Bisham Abbey to that end. "We have used everything, even videoing our training sessions and playing the tape back to them," said Hoddle. "They have not taken everything on board yet but things are falling into place."

While some clubs, notably Chelsea, Liverpool and Aston Villa, play three central defenders, none play this system. This is why Martin Keown, a specialist marker, has been recalled though he was injured last night. Sol Campbell also seems suited to the role. There are fewer options in the centre and, with Jamie Redknapp injured, Hoddle has persevered with the less technically adept Gareth Southgate. He played noticably deeper against Italy and again last night.

The problem with fitting players to a system, rather than finding a system which suits the players, is that players are asked to do jobs beyond their ability. Southgate has many qualities but close control and visionary passing are not among them. This was illustrated after 20 minutes when his poor touch gave Christophe Dugarry a free shot from 20 yards.

Later in the half he found himself with the ball, in his own half, unchallenged. A natural sweeper would have waited for the right movement, or stepped forward drawing the French towards him and creating space. Southgate simply hit a hopeful ball which struck Paul Gascoigne and went to the French.

In the meantime Campbell's concentration was at fault when he was caught ball-watching allowing Nicolas Ouedec to drift behind him for an unchallenged header. While this was a rare event as he, like Gary Neville, generally stuck to his man, the criticism is justified as a single mistake can cost a game at the top level. Another problem was that Neville should not have been asked to mark Dugarry as he was continually outjumped by the much taller Frenchman.

While Hoddle has fitted his players to a system Aime Jacquet has done the opposite with the ironic result that his team play an English-style back four defending zonally. "I played it in my first game (a 1-0 win over Italy) because destiny forced me," he said. "I did not have three central defenders. It worked well so I have continued."

There is room for both systems. England have now conceded two goals in nine games under Hoddle and France 15 in 35 games under Jacquet.

Scoring goals, on the other hand, is best left to Shearer.