Football: Hoddle still searching for that winning formula

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The Independent Online
IN drumming up support for the England team - "great if the whole nation gets behind them," ITV's Bob Wilson said when presenting highlights of Saturday's action at Wembley - television puts it at risk from the downside of expectation.

With more time for preparation England, who have drifted a point in the betting, may put on a better show in the World Cup finals than they did against Saudi Arabia but no good can come from choosing to ignore pretty obvious shortcomings.

Rival television channels are so heavily committed to the upcoming football carnival that they cannot be relied on for restraint and objective analysis. With promotional hyperbole now at a ludicrous level, television is not inclined to dwell on the possibility that England aren't good enough.

It's all very good for Wilson to complain, as he did on Saturday night, that England get negative attention in newspapers but I've never heard anything to suggest that football writers should be fans with notebooks.

No England manager has been given an easy passage by my profession. However, as Terry Venables said, Glenn Hoddle must put criticism aside and get on with attempting to arrive at a winning formula.

This week's matches against Tunisia and Belgium may show things in a different light but Saturday's performance suggested that television's rampant optimism may be misplaced.

England made enough chances early in the match to suggest that Saudi Arabia might cave in if their goal fell but the rout didn't materialise. Once over their understandable nervousness, and well organised by Carlos Alberto Parreira who had charge of the World Cup winners four years ago, the Saudis gave Hoddle plenty to think about.

It wasn't so much missed chances that will occupy Hoddle's attention as the number of times England's defence was opened up by moves that penetrated the first line of trenches, exposing the defence to the wiles of gifted, quick-footed raiders.

The ease with which Saudi Arabia got at England's back line, the discomfort then caused to players who are conditioned to less subtle forms of attack, suggested problems in establishing a secure system of play.

A case is being made in some quarters for David Beckham's deployment in the centre of midfield but lack of pace prevents him from getting forward quickly enough with the ball to alter the opposition's alignment. The fact that Alex Ferguson has never seriously considered bringing Beckham in from Manchester United's right flank should in itself serve as an answer to those who suppose that he is being underemployed.

Persisting for the full 90 minutes with Darren Anderton, who has started only three matches in two years, Hoddle's second-half substitutions included Paul Gascoigne. Hoddle's patience with Gascoigne, his willingness to forgive fresh outbursts of embarrassing behaviour, is easily explained.

If well short of the fitness that will be required in France, looking physically slack, Gascoigne's imagination is still well in advance of that promised by any of his other midfielders.

Strength rather than pace served to take Gascoigne past defenders. Much of it has gone, lost to injury, loose living and the passage of time, but he remains the one England player who can provide the inspiration that is essential to progress in the competition.

In his present slack state Gascoigne would be unlikely to get a place in any of the other leading World Cup squads but Hoddle will surely make every effort to get him in shape for the finals.

Picking up the ball deep in his own half, taking it off defenders as he did at first when brought on, Gascoigne isn't much of a threat to anybody. But when getting the ball closer to the Saudi Arabian goal, once unleashing a shot that flew narrowly wide, and then darting past two defenders to set up a move that almost led to Ian Wright scoring, he brought an added dimension to England's football.

It was needed because this is an England team that does not yet seem to have a clear idea of where it is supposed to be going. More than enough flaws to support the doubts now being expressed by objective observers.

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