Football: Players lose confidence in Hoddle

European Championship: Substandard England know a victory is needed on Wednesday to relieve the pressure
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The Independent Online
England 0 Bulgaria 0

THE ETERNAL conundrum in assessing the reasons for a football team's failure is identifying where the coach's responsibility ends and the players' begins. The old cliche, "when they cross that white line", no longer applies but nor does the belief that the coach has become so omnipotent he should carry the blame for everything.

It was not Glenn Hoddle who lacked the pace and vision to make things happen at Wembley on Saturday, nor was it Hoddle who failed to get round the back of the Bulgarian defence, failed to deliver the final ball, failed to make the right movement off the ball, and failed to hit the target when on it.

But when it comes to why England's millionaire footballers failed to translate their ability into performance, and why England's European Championship qualifying campaign is in danger of being over before it has really begun, the quality of management must enter into consideration.

Hoddle determines the formation, picks and prepares the players within it, and, if things go badly, must act to put them right.

In all three aspects he has made errors. The 3-5-2 formation is not only imposed so rigidly players seem afraid to stray, and thus become predictable, but it also handicapped the team on Saturday. One of the aspects England missed most was width: they were unable to get round the Bulgarians and, with a few rare exceptions, failed to deliver any decent crosses. While wing-backs are supposed to provide width when a team is constantly on the attack they not only get marked too easily but also occupy space which could be used for overlapping.

It took Hoddle an hour to recognise this and then he attempted to remedy it by bringing on David Batty, pushing Rob Lee into right-midfield and asking Gary Neville, from centre-back, to break down the right wing. He did this willingly but any regular observer of Manchester United could have told Hoddle that crossing is not among Neville's many qualities.

Not that Hoddle had many options. With Beckham suspended, Steve McManaman, Ray Parlour and even Darren Huckerby injured, and Paul Merson left at the team hotel nursing a back problem, he was short of both decent crossers and that valuable football commodity, pace. The best crosser in the team was the man supposed to be on the end of them, Alan Shearer. The quickest player, Michael Owen, only once had the chance to use his speed, and then he fell over running on to Paul Scholes' 39th-minute pass.

As a coach it is hard to legislate for that, or Sol Campbell heading wide from a neat corner routine after 12 minutes. But there must be questions about the mental preparation of a team which seemed so uncertain of itself, so afraid of taking responsibility, which hoped things would happen rather than attempted to make them do so.

They defended well enough, Lee filled his brief in midfield and Graeme Le Saux sparkled for a while on the left, but Jamie Redknapp faded quickly and the front pair were never in the game. "Lacklustre" may be a football journalist's cliche but it has never been more appropriate. England were so leaden in thought and movement, so dull, you wondered if the notorious injections were actually of Mogadon.

There was, we were informed afterwards, a shot on target. After much scouring of notebooks somebody spotted a reference to a tame header by Andy Hinchcliffe after 31 minutes. That was it. Luxembourg had as many on-target attempts in Poland.

One of the most worrying aspects was that, apart from the attempt to get Neville wide, Hoddle seemed to have little idea of how to improve matters.

While Terry Venables' teams tended to improve after half-time, as he made little tactical and personal adjustments, Hoddle's often get worse. To judge from his post-match comments ["build-up too slow", "lack of creativity in the last third", "didn't get to the byline"] he can identify problems but not solve them. If the game is not won early on, it will not be won at all.

It was, he admitted, England's worst performance at Wembley under him. This is despite some stiff competition from the matches against Italy, Chile, Saudi Arabia and Poland. This calendar year England have won four games out of 12, with only the defeat of Colombia coming in the last five games.

It does not make sense. These are good players and the matches against Argentina in the World Cup, Italy in Rome and Nantes, and away to Poland, show what they are capable of. The inevitable conclusion is that Hoddle has lost the confidence of too many members of the team and only a change of coach is likely to produce an improvement in results.

The public appear to have decided where to place the blame. After a general chant of "what a load of rubbish" Hoddle was booed off the pitch and, despite his denials, it was clearly personal. The way the jeers turned to applause as Hoddle ducked out of view and Neville went off made that clear.

Victory in Luxembourg may lift the gloom, but it is beginning to look as if England have a lame duck coach. It also looks as if their only interest in the Euro 2000 championship will be an academic one.

ENGLAND (3-5-2): Seaman (Arsenal); G Neville (Manchester United), Southgate (Aston Villa), Campbell (Tottenham); Anderton (Tottenham), Scholes (Manchester United), Lee (Newcastle), Redknapp (Liverpool), Hinchcliffe (Sheffield Wednesday); Owen (Liverpool), Shearer (Newcastle United). Substitutes: Le Saux (Chelsea) for Hinchcliffe, 34; Batty (Newcastle) for Anderton, 67; Sheringham (Manchester United) for Scholes, 76.

BULGARIA (3-5-2): Zdravkov (Istanbulspor, Turk); Yordanov (Sporting Lisbon), Zagorcic (Liteks Lovetch), Kirilov (Liteks Lovetch); Kishishev (Liteks Lovetch), Iliev (AEK Athens), Iankov (Adanaspor, Turk), Petkov (CSKA Sofia), Naidenov (CSKA Sofia); Stoichkov (Kashiva Reysol, Japan), Hristov (Kaiserslauten) Substitutes: Bachev (Slavia Sofia) for Stoichkov, 59; Gruev (Neftohimik) for Iliev, 62; G Ivanov (CSKA Sofia) for Hristov, 90.

Referee: L Vagner (Hungary).

Booked: England: Anderton, Redknapp. Bulgaria: Kishishev.

Attendance: 72,974.

Man of the match: Kirilov.