Football: Wembley in debt to Owen

Night a boy rich in promise rose above the poverty of those around him; Ian Ridley looks for positive signs from a negative night for Hoddle's strategy
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The Independent Online
AFTER Chile, Berne. A visit to Switzerland in March for England's next World Cup warm-up match will surely see the temperature raised from the cold comfort of what was supposed to be February fact-finding against South American opposition but was instead a demonstration of failings.

Certainly the stakes will be higher. As each month passes, and the England coach Glenn Hoddle counts down the matches - just five now - until 15 June and the opening match of the finals against Tunisia in Marseilles, so the chances for individuals to impress decrease and the need to establish rhythm and momentum increases.

The 2-0 defeat by Chile saw the pruning and preening process intensify and in a perverse way, it was a good week for the English game; out of arrogance in some jingoistic quarters comes realism, out of errors come lessons learned.

Any belief that England were turning up in France simply to reclaim the trophy that has been doing the rounds of public appearances in this country lately was quite properly discredited, as were the theories of a great strength in depth of talent ready to step out of a high-quality Premiership and seize its chance.

There may indeed be a talented crop about to flower but not yet at the highest level and not without hard and expert work. Take the B game, which England also lost, 2-1. Promising performances came from Emile Heskey, Darren Huckerby and Dominic Matteo, but only Paul Merson, with the incisive eye for a pass missing from the senior side the following night, demonstrated himself worthy of an immediate promotion. But then that much was known already.

The exception to it all was Michael Owen. England's youngest player this century illustrated an attractive blend of skill, energy, composure and confidence that will ensure he receives another chance to force his way into the final squad of 22. His debut recalled for this correspondent that of Darren Anderton, who similarly took the step up in his stride as if to the manor born.

Even in Owen's display, though, there were tutorials. "The problem at this level is that there isn't space on the back of a defender like there is in the Premiership," said Hoddle. "He has got to learn that more subtle movement is needed." As Don Howe once told a young Gary Lineker, one run for the defender and one for yourself.

But the very fact that the 18-year-old stood out showed the paucity of performance elsewhere. A Chile admirably committed to the game - notably in the pickpocket finishing of Marcelo Salas, despite an impending multi- million pound move to Lazio - had done their homework well on England. As their central tactic they pressed the peas-in-a-pod David Batty and Nicky Butt when they received the ball from the back three. And Hoddle rates them below England's group opponents Colombia.

Often without the wit to find ways through in the absence of such players as Paul Gascoigne and Steve McManaman, England resorted to aiming the ball early and high, either from deep or wide. It was picked off comfortably by defenders not as afraid of a cross as Englishmen imagine. "Our back three didn't give each other depth when we were in possession," Hoddle lamented.

Then there were the potential disciplinary aberrations by Batty and the substitutes, Graeme Le Saux and Paul Ince. Aggression and determination may be admirable and necessary but allowing frustration to undermine the cause is another matter altogether. "That's exactly why you experiment a little bit," said Hoddle. "It's not just for injuries. I learnt that at Le Tournoi last summer. Suspensions are going to come into it. At the last World Cup we saw yellow cards brandished all over the place. Some are going to be just, some are not. If we lose experienced players through suspension we have got to have a foundation of experience for other players who are going to perform instead."

Hoddle himself bears much responsibility for the week's shortcomings. The alliance of Teddy Sheringham, Owen and another debutant in Dion Dublin up front always looked ambitious and bore resemblance to England against Poland and Italy at Wembley when they were similarly strung out and messy. Only once could Alan Shearer save England then. When he arrived on the scene on Wednesday to replace Sheringham, the balance looked even more fanciful.

With Butt making his first start, there was a too naive look to England that served neither him, Dublin - though he only started because of Andy Cole's injury - nor Owen well. Now Dublin may be used in a B game as a defender to see if his versatility will be valuable to the squad either against a Swiss Under-21 team, when four over-aged players will be permitted, or Russia B in advance of England's match against Portugal in April.

In addition, the confidence of Sol Campbell and Phil Neville probably took a knock, while only with the introduction of Le Saux was there a left-footer to balance the team. Lack of preparation time was a factor as England looked a team hastily assembled but Hoddle would not be human were his marriage separation and surrounding publicity not to have its effect.

What was probably confirmed to him last week was that the team he fielded in Rome last October - with Shearer for Ian Wright - remains the first choice. Any experimenting is simply to confirm his preference for the wing-back system.

"We can play a back four when we are defending if we need to and swing into a back three when in possession," said Hoddle, which appeared to be what Chile did, though the coach did not see them as a 4-4-2 team. "But I believe it gives us better options on the pitch with a back three. At this moment we haven't done badly playing the way we have been."

Hoddle does not like to reveal too much to opposing coaches but he will not wish to endure another night like last week with a below-strength team, no matter how unimportant the result is said to be. "As a professional, that feeling of walking off the pitch when you have lost is not nice," he said. "I don't think it would be healthy if we lost the next four games so it's a balancing act between keeping the confidence up and experimenting. But that's my job, isn't it?"

Perhaps it was all down to the lull that English players can experience in February, and the Manchester United players looked particularly jaded. The intense programme of autumn, Christmas and the New Year takes a toll and strength is regathered before the spring offensive. It has been notable this season how the older players have endured flat periods mid-season, aware of resources needed for the peaks to come.

We will only know come Switzerland next month. Long unbeaten runs before World Cup finals may deceive - as did England's 17 games before 1986, when Hoddle was a player, and they promptly lost their opening game to Portugal - but losing runs certainly undermine.

It may be that last Wednesday mattered not a jot, that in fact it was a valuable "positive out of a negative" as Hoddle insists. Or it may be that it was the beginning of things turning sour for Hoddle and England. If hindsight is not to judge the latter, England will need to warm up more impressively in Berne.