Football: Platt's command performance: Norman Fox studies the tactical success of a team imbued with a sense of perspective

EVEN in Graham Taylor's time, England occasionally played better than they did against Denmark last Wednesday. But it only ever looked like a happy accident. Terry Venables's instant achievement as coach was to create a sense that the team knew what they were about and, just as important, what he was about. Between them they gave a broad hint that England's recurring, damaging inability to win matches that really matter could at last be overcome.

There is, though, a problem which became submerged by the hype about a performance that was thoroughly satisfactory, especially when judged against a background of concentrated expectancy. Faced with that pressure, England and Venables's narrow win was a considerable effort but from here on there must be a sense of perspective.

For the next two years none of England's opponents will lose anything more than a little confidence and prestige when they fall, as they undoubtedly will to a more progressive England. But will any of them, including Germany next month, really provide the test that matters? Pointers and clues perhaps, but not the sort of investigation that comes only when opponents actually need to win. Not even the 1996 European Championship will necessarily pose the ultimate questions since most of Europe's leading countries will be in a transitional state between World Cups. Nevertheless, to win that competition would give England a reputation good for a goal start in any of the later World Cup qualifiers.

Venables was right to caution that his predecessors had had a much more difficult introduction. Yet after only one game under his auspices there is greatly improved hope that England can exploit home advantage and win that European title. 'No, I wouldn't say that the first game went like clockwork,' Venables said. 'It worked out well, perhaps a little better than I expected, but I wouldn't say more than that. It was promising.'

Venables was far from downcast but sensibly downbeat. The tactical success and the exciting performances of Darren Anderton and Graeme Le Sauxconcealed the fact that David Platt had again proved England's only reliable goalscorer; the talented Alan Shearer suffered the consequences of England's 'pressure' game in midfield and had spasmodic support; Paul Gascoigne insisted that he was fit to play and wasn't; Peter Beardsley brought maturity and insight to midfield without doing the thing he knows best, exploiting penalty- area confusion; Paul Parker defended reliably but emphasised that his distribution is still haphazard; and whatever happened to Paul Ince, the one player, above even Platt, who has the ability to be the commander that England lost when Bryan Robson retired?

However, the downside was hardly as disturbing as all the downs suffered when England players seemed afraid to express themselves or had little idea of what was expected tactically. Venables could easily have opted to play a standard Premiership 4-4-2 but took the sort of gamble that his believers say will make him a great international coach. The idea of withdrawing Beardsley into a deep role had all the makings of a territorial dispute with Gascoigne. It worked, but was that only because Gascoigne was patently incapable of stretching for the ball and running the midfield show? The dispute never occurred. There is nothing to beat a good and lucky coach.

His talk of being prepared to see England lose a few matches if it meant getting things right was never convincing. His tactics against a Danish side he knew would be a long way short of their European Championship form showed that he was making sure his first game would not end in defeat. The idea that England could play well and lose and everyone would go home happy, was always open to scepticism. There was no way Venables could start a loser. A large proportion of the predominantly London- based Wembley crowds will take him to their heart to an extent they never did Taylor because they see him as one of their own: as much a matter of Come On My Son as Come On England.

With the benefit of such support and the cushion of a largely impressive opening performance, Venables now has the opportunity to carry out the experiments he thinks are necessary. Some of the personnel may change, but anyone coming into the squad will surely know that mere Palmer-like doggedness is no longer something to put on the cv. The qualifications are adaptability, the ability to change tempo, pass the ball accurately and appreciate the fundamental need to stop opponents running all over you in your own half.

In all of the important games England lost under Taylor, the common causes of problems were poor selection and increasing tactical confusion but mainly failure to dominate in their own backyard.

(Photograph omitted)

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