Football: Venables on fertile ground: Americans fail to bridge yawning gap as the tactical awareness of England's manager helps to feed a growing belief

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The Independent Online
EVERYTHING in the English country garden smells of roses. The national team are unbeaten without conceding a goal in four matches under Terry Venables. The Premiership's proud chest is still expanded and, this week, six of its best seek to cane Europe. These appear to be the exciting early days of a new era in the game.

But roses have thorns. The welcome back to Wembley began with the car park attendant implementing an increased charge of 17 per cent. There were the few morons marring the minute's silence for Billy Wright, many more jeering the visitors' national anthem and John Barnes's first touch. Then there was the opposition intent only on damage-limitation; a new yawn in the new dawn. The thought intruded that we have 21 more months of technical exercises rather than football matches to endure.

England did as much as could be expected and the 2-0 victory over the United States did not adequately reflect the balance of play; it could have been the star-mangled banner at the end of the match, too. The inspiring fervour of their own World Cup may have been absent, but it is worth remembering that the United States' central defensive pairing of Marcelo Balboa and Alexi Lalas was the one against which Romario and Bebeto struggled.

Alan Shearer pulled them hither and thither with a display of his voluminous all-round abilities, his two goals also laying bare the deficiences in the modern-day Uncle Sam figure Lalas, whose rejection by George Graham, among the best judges of a centre-back, after a trial at Arsenal now becomes understandable. There may be several strikers pressing for an England place but it will be a hot day in Hull before Shearer's is under scrutiny.

The day before the match, the mischievious United States coach Bora Milutinovic was asked which English players he admired. 'Cantona,' he replied. When pressed, he added: 'Giggs.' He now has a new name. While Shearer's crowning, towering performance was the obvious evidence of England's superiority, its roots lay in the mind of Venables. He had clearly noted how Balboa and Lalas dominated during the summer when high balls were hit at them, as England might have done not too long ago, and instilled quickly in them the need - and this is clearly the ambition with his England - the passing, rotating game necessary nowadays at world level. They duly found the space on the flanks, notably the intelligent Shearer.

There lingers a suspicion about Venables: that his start is no better than that of Graham Taylor, who might have done better later on had Shearer been available more to him and all his travel-sick England's matches had been at home, where he lost only to Germany; that it is merely Venables's personal charm which disarms would-be critics of decisions such as the recall of John Barnes. What was the phone call he made after four minutes of the match all about? 'I wanted to get the food on at home,' he replied.

But it remains his ability to see ways of exploiting the opposition's weaknesses, countering their strengths - the call to the bench was to get Barry Venison to drop deeper to negate the withdrawn striker Hugo Perez - and encouragement of bright and adaptable players that earns him admiration. That said, the introduction of Les Ferdinand and Ian Wright late in the match merely emphasised that it should have been Robbie Fowler and Andy Cole. The willing Sheringham, though his finishing was a few degrees out, has deserved another chance.

The Christmas tree or 4-4- 2? There will continue to be experiments, Venables says, but he still appears to lean towards the former. Though generally pleased on Wednesday, he said: 'There are bits and pieces we can improve on, like the general shape of the team, if we are going to play that way. You can't get strung out, which we did on a couple of occasions in the second half.'

What matters more is the quality of player within any system, and Barnes fitted in comfortably. Was that a cheer for him towards the end? It should have been. Now that the expectation has been lowered and the burden of creativity on him eased, he revealed himself eager to share the workload Venables's style demands and performed neatly the undemanding task of accurate passing asked of him, adding some moments of illumination. Venison, too, can be added to the list of old reliables.

Now we await more interesting contests, beginning on 12 October with Romania. Such as Dumitrescu, Petrescu, Raduciou, Hagi and Belodedici may adopt the familiar Wembley game plan of contain and counter but they will do it with more expertise, defending with resolution and attacking with panache. Venables describes them as 'an upgrade. They are an exceptionally flexible, technical team'. They brushed aside Azerbaijan 3-0 last week with an ease on the eye promised by their defeat of Wales last November and confirmed by the World Cup.

Besides which, the competition for places within the England side is ensuring an edge. Rob Jones, Tony Adams, Graeme Le Saux, Paul Ince - despite his injury - the energetic David Platt and Shearer may be looking like fixtures, perhaps the developing Darren Aderton too, but there are odd fittings still to be nailed down.

After Romania, it will be Nigeria in November, Portugal next March and, before a pre- European Championship mini- tournament involving Brazil, Sweden and Japan in June, an away game in April. That may tell Venables something more about the character of his squad and true quality of his defence, even if Wembley games present the more realistic examination for the 1996 hosts. 'Our defence is going to be tested on professionalism here,' he says. 'The goalkeeper may be called on to make only one save but that could be the one that wins the match. They have to concentrate and not become spectators when we are attacking. They have got to be ready for the counter-attack.'

With that, Venables was off to study his four videotapes of the match, from various camera angles including the one from behind the goal that he prefers, and pore over the notes - 'reminders of what I like and don't like' - he takes during games.

For eight of the 13 players he used, a more valid probing of the present domestic optimism now calls, in the shape of European club competition. Manchester United, Newcastle, Blackburn, Arsenal, Aston Villa and Chelsea do represent the chest-beaters of the Premiership rather than the soft underbelly that has yet to be fully exposed, however. Milan's artistry in defeating Genoa last Sunday night and Sampdoria's dissection of Newcastle in a pre-season tournament in Glasgow have already illustrated what ultimately awaits.

One early domestic impression has been how well players and referees have reacted to Fifa's attempt to clean up the game. Judging by the Italian referee's failure to caution Steve Watson for a tackle from behind in the Under-21 game against Portugal on Tuesday and television highlights from around Europe, notably Italy, the success has not been widespread. How his players cope might tell Venables more this week. The United States, in their sporting parlance, may have stank; how lasting the essence of English rose?

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