Football: Owen has faith in England role

Adam Szreter on the pressure Glenn Hoddle faces as his young striker asks for time to adapt to system
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The Independent Online
WHEN GLENN HODDLE awoke in his hotel room yesterday morning with a press conference at the nearby South Bucks Bridge Club scheduled for 9.15am, a cursory glance at the cards he had been dealt was probably enough to prompt an immediate call of no bid from the England coach, leaving Michael Owen and Gareth Southgate to make the most of a difficult hand.

With another game just over 48 hours away Hoddle was possibly justified in passing on this round of interrogation, although he is unlikely to escape his critics later on today in Luxembourg, where even an England victory by a record margin tomorrow night will not change their minds about him. His unorthodox methods and unshakeable belief in concepts alien to British football such as faith healers, vitamin and mineral injections, wing-backs and even God all add up to a wrong 'un in their eyes.

A more charitable view, and one shared - hardly surprisingly - by his players is that they are at least as much to blame for the poor displays in Stockholm last month and against Bulgaria at Wembley on Saturday. After all, little more than three months ago they played their part in what not only the English and Argentinians thought was the most exciting game of the entire World Cup.

"We're aware of the pressure that's on the coach, but it's for us to make sure our performances are right," Southgate said yesterday. "Two games ago things were very different, so we can't be that far away from doing things right." Try telling that to the Wembley boo-boys.

"I don't know who the boos were directed at but I think the players were partly to blame for the performance," Owen said. "You don't see many people complaining before the game about the team selection, so I can't see why virtually every bit of the blame was heaped on the manager."

Incredible as it may seem after his wonderful World Cup, Owen's own selection is now a matter of considerable debate. His combination with Alan Shearer has looked far from effective in the last two matches and doubts have been expressed about Owen's ability to adapt his game - always assuming it is not Shearer who needs to adapt to Owen. "On Saturday I think it was an improvement from Sweden," Owen said in defence of the partnership.

"We got more of the ball, there was more movement, I was making a lot of runs and making space for people like Paul Scholes to get into. We could still do with a bit more of the ball, and maybe a bit more movement, but it takes time to work on partnerships.

"I don't think I'm having such a nightmare at international level as a lot of people have suggested - it's a different game totally and I'm still in the learning process. People have got to be sensible and realise I'm not going to score goals like the one against Argentina every week. It's for you to make up your own minds, but I don't think I had a really poor game on Saturday."

Given that neither player is having particular problems finding the net at club level, the cause of their difficulties for England may lie elsewhere. It may be lying in a drying-out clinic - any team would struggle to replace a player like Paul Gascoigne. Or it may be the system of three centre- backs and two wing-backs that Hoddle employs, one that many have tried and most have rejected. If it is to work, the wide players have to cover a lot of ground, and England were hardly helped on Saturday by both Darren Anderton and Andy Hinchcliffe clearly being short of fitness.

Southgate, who played in the centre of the three-man defence against Bulgaria, is the only England player who uses those tactics regularly at club level. "You can get bogged down talking about systems," he insisted. "The game is completely different at club level. At Villa we play with two defensive full- backs, whereas the onus on Saturday was to press the game forward a little more.

"Then there's the question of whether you can play at the same tempo at international level and most people would agree that you can't. I hear what people are saying about systems but when you're out there, no matter what system you're playing, the performance and the application have to be right. You can talk about playing with a back four, but Bulgaria only played with two strikers so you would have had even more spare people."

Another area of concern on Saturday, which will have to be addressed in time for Poland's visit in March, was the inability to compensate for Paul Ince's absence, both as a player and as a motivator. "That's something we touched on last night," Southgate revealed. "Generally speaking, it's a fairly quiet bunch of players and the team on Saturday was a relatively young side. It's something we can improve on a lot."

Hoddle is unlikely to make radical changes against Luxembourg and nor should he need to. Barring disaster there, he should have a few months to contemplate his various convictions, but he will have to brush up on his conventions if he wants to do any more than play the dummy on his next visit to the Bridge Club.

"We understand we're expected to win comfortably on Wednesday, but nothing we do is going to alter the way people feel about the last two performances," Southgate admitted. "From that point of view it's a slightly no-win situation."

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