Football: March of a liberation movement: England produce a five-star performance to reward the enlightened approach of Terry Venables. Ian Ridley applauds the fluid system being successfully fostered by the new coach

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The Independent Online
'WE'RE so good it's unbelievable,' sang a section of the Wembley crowd. 'Ooh-S-A, Ooh-S-A,' gloated the Greek chorus in response.

The 5-0 win notwithstanding, this new England is not, yet, incredibly good; although good enough to have gone to the World Cup. Each goal compounded the agony, even anger, of supporters. The reality is that the old England was simply not good enough and such as Greece, with their passable imitation of the Swindon Town defence, will be, as they say in the United States, stinking up the place in a way that has nothing to do with ouzo. Ironies abound, not least that today England play Norway, who won the qualifying group, from which the Netherlands also qualified, with a brand of direct football that their coach, Egil Olsen, dredged from the English game in general and the teachings of the Football Association's director of coaching, Charles Hughes, in particular.

England, for example, would not be under Terry Venables's charge and embryonically a team for international football of the Nineties, playing what the Greek coach, Alketas Panagoulias, called 'a very modern game', had Graham Taylor's functional formations that were the logical conclusion of the Eighties not failed their final examinations. Panagoulias still describes England as protagonists of the world game; protagonists, in Greek drama, meaning main characters.

Then there is the formation with which Venables has begun, a lone striker spearheading, with a five-man midfield expected to supply and support, at a time when by his own reckoning there are at least 10 strikers of the highest quality in the country but without the same depth of midfield talent.

He was quick after last Tuesday's match to talk of a front three - Alan Shearer, David Platt and Peter Beardsley - but there were initial signs of uncertainty when the Greeks flattered and, until England were settled by a goalkeeper bearing a gift, of Shearer being isolated, momentarily looking unhappy as he had done for periods in Venables' first match against Denmark.

After that, though, there was the confusion among the opposition that Venables is seeking. With only one player to mark, central defenders and midfield players, uncertain as to where responsibility lay, were unsettled by bright, deep-lying passers rotating like basketball players. It was a pretty sight.

It is one likely to be seen to good effect next month in the United States among the better teams. Colombia, for example, whom Venables rates as potential semi-finalists, play much the same way with someone to watch over them in front of a four-man defence, and the other midfield players running off a central striker. Their 2-0 win over Bayern Munich last week was a glimpse of their potential.

Coaches always say that they are looking for performances rather than results but England's was a case of one leading to the other. Of the new caps, Steve Bould had little chance to impress against opponents unwilling to commit bodies to attack - though alongside Tony Adams there were at least arms in stereo appealing for offside - while in the minder's role Kevin Richardson played fairly, if squarely. Stuart Pearce's late appearance as a right-back seemed an example of Venables wanting adaptable players gone over the top.

Despite one sensing reservations in Shearer about his role, he insists that he is at home with the method. 'I am used to playing with someone else up front but if you are going to be an international player you have got to adapt to different systems and I am certainly not complaining about the system Mr Venables is playing,' he said.

'It's a little bit harder work but that's no problem at all with players coming up to support me, the Platts, the Beardsleys, the Andertons, the Mersons. It's a daunting task for the opposition.'

Will there be as many scoring chances for him? He is, after all, one of the breed for whom the sight of goal lights the eyes, as his goal, the fifth, showed when he was determined to round off an evening of selfless endeavour with a personal reward. 'I hope so,' was the simple response.

He admitted to wanting to play ultimately in Italy; and though he may be forced to create more goals than he scores, thus not matching the eye-catching figures of Gary Lineker, he may be more attractive to them as he develops an ability to lead a line solo.

'Outstanding players normally have one outstanding feature. They do one thing special,' Venables said. 'Then there are others who are nearly quick, or nearly good in the air. But Shearer has got several things that he does outstandingly well.' He has told Shearer that he wants him to work between the lines of the 18-yard box and not make wide runs, so as to conserve energy for chances when they arrive.

'It's interesting,' was the verdict on the Venables method from David Pleat, the Luton Town manager who adapted the 4-5-1 formation at Tottenham in the exciting year of 1986-87, when Clive Allen scored 49 goals and Spurs finished third in the League and runners-up in the Cup. 'It's really what Manchester United have been playing this season. It needs a lot of pace in midfield to play it and all except Cantona have it. I know it has worked well against Greece but I'm not so sure about the highest level, against Germany, Italy and Holland.

'The first thing people think is that it's a defensive system but it depends on the attitude and instructions of the coach. It protects the full-backs well and defensively it has good points. The shortcomings? Putting pressure on the opposition. If you have only one player up, the opposition can come out with the ball.'

Systems, Pleat added with the rider that really it is a simple game, are only as good as the players in them. 'If you haven't got players who can control and pass the ball, it doesn't matter what you play,' he said. And systems should also be about simply liberating the more gifted players rather than enslaving them. Pleat's was, he said, designed to get the most out of Glenn Hoddle. Would that England managers might have considered such a thing for a player, whatever the caveats about him when the going got tough, who said that he only once in 53 appearances played in a position that suited him.

Should Paul Gascoigne - in some ways a debate to rival that about Hoddle of a decade ago - return to full fitness and effectiveness, it should certainly suit him; in the meantime there is Beardsley, again a small object of beauty. His perception was the key to the performance, his bright footballing mind unlocking the Greek defence with several swift turns. Venables describes Shearer as 'a class act'; Beardsley is what the coach, in his television summariser's role, might call 'a smart item'.

'I have always played just behind the front striker be it Gary Lineker, Andy Cole, Ian Rush or John Aldridge and it suits me down to the ground,' Beardsley said. And down to the ground is the pleasant, operative part of the statement, though Venables naturally does not eschew the long - accurate - ball. 'It allows me to get forward because we have got the security of a five-man midfield when it breaks down. Alan Shearer is the perfect man for that system. He holds the ball up so well and if there was a problem and he got injured, I think Les Ferdinand could do the same job. Maybe at times he could do with a bit more support. As time goes on I hope we will be able to do that.'

Then there is Platt. In his early England career he looked at times like another of Taylor's runners but how wrong some of us have been. Now, the self-assurance of playing alongside some of Europe's greatest talents is clear in his every movement, he exudes an authority to go with a developed technique. His goalscoring record of 23 goals in 47 games is remarkable.

The dilemma for Venables last week was whether to persist with the formation for today's game, in the hope that it would work again and continue England on a winning, esteem-raising start, or to experiment, perhaps with a more orthodox 4-4-2, without falling into the trap of that system as he sees it, the cop-out of high balls when under pressure. Not that Milan did in their breathtaking victory over Barcelona with a similar formation, though the players within it showed a technique and subtlety of movement not often encountered in the English club game.

Venables' instincts remain just to modify matters at the moment, to build a winning team that players can come into with confidence all around them. He has latched on to the fact that France went into the 1984 European Championship finals in their own country with a long unbeaten home record. 'We don't want to get too clever,' he said. 'What we have been doing is the simple things well.'

He has talked, too, of wanting to try the system against a stronger defence and Norway should be a real test. Within that, a start for Matthew Le Tissier came to mind, perhaps not in the Beardsley role for which Venables sees him as an understudy but as a wide player to prove the versatility Venables is seeking.

Venables sees a squad of players able to absorb instruction quickly but prefers the simplicity of the system employed against Greece. 'There is less worry about the small amount of time we have to prepare for games because I simplify things instead of providing an avalanche of information, none of which sticks anyway.'

The image returns of Taylor during 'The Impossible Job' desperately trying to explain to Nigel Clough in Norway some tortuous tactical nuance on the touchline. It was, ultimately, a match for which Taylor failed to carry the players, something at which Venables has so far succeeded. 'All the players respect his knowledge, his experience and what he has done in the game. He gets his point across straight away,' Shearer said.

Lest we forget, though, Taylor began his England career with 12 unbeaten matches - and early on included several players in their thirties, as Venables has done. Some of the football played by his teams at Wembley surpassed even last Tuesday's, notably against Turkey, and, for an hour of each match at least, against Norway and Holland. Also, the injured Shearer was not available to Taylor, though Beardsley was, in the turning-point defeat by Norway in Oslo a year ago. Only Platt and Adams are automatic slections from that 11 now.

The problems, of performance, came more away from home for Taylor, something which does not trouble Venables as England build towards hosting the 1996 European Championship finals.

The difference, in the auguries at least, is that Venables seems determined to accommodate the country's more gifted individuals (though one hopes that the exclusion so far of Andy Cole will be rectified), unlike his predecessor, who often appeared to mistrust them.

In addition, formations, notably the messy one in Oslo, sometimes took account more of the opposition's strengths than England's. 'We all make mistakes,' said Venables, refusing to criticise Taylor publicly, of that horrible night his team seek to atone for today. 'I will do what I think is right. That doesn't mean it is right. I'm sure I'll make the odd stoomer.'

But, as Blake said (William, not Noel, latterly of Dundee): 'I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's'

(Photograph omitted)

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