Football: World Cup - Change of plan seems essential

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the questions raised by England's debilitating defeat in Toulouse is whether it makes any sense for Glenn Hoddle to persist with the system of play he stubbornly favours.

Another concerns the invigorating effect of Michael Owen's introduction against the Romanians on Monday night, but more of that later.

First the system - three central defenders and a five-man midfield with wing-backs. If Hoddle's point that David Seaman had very little to do in goal holds up, Romania found no great difficulty in dealing with the predictably wide angles of England's assaults or keeping the ball from them. The ease with which they were able to infiltrate space between England's midfield and the defensive line without immediate confrontation cast fresh doubts on Hoddle's thinking.

Rather too much is made of strategy and tactics these days - superior individual technique and more intelligent team work was central to Romania's victory - but England's now beleaguered coach may have to seriously consider reversion to a collective method with which his defenders are more comfortable.

Flaws evident in the first match, especially the panic that almost led to Tunisia taking the lead in Marseilles after six minutes, and then nearly equalising from a long diagonal pass that found England without adequate cover, were again apparent in Toulouse.

Praising his players for the intelligence they showed in achieving a result that guarantees Romania a place in the second round, Anghel Iordanescu smiled wryly when it was put to him, more or less, that England's general approach could be classified as prehistoric. "We respected England's strengths and knew that they would fight very hard," he said. "But we managed to play a thoughtful game, particularly in the second half when England came back strongly at us."

Significantly, Romania did not make the naive mistake of bundling into the back of Alan Shearer, as Tunisia did when giving away eight free-kicks around the penalty area. Romania simply allowed Shearer to drop off before quickly closing down the space into which he then turned. In fact Shearer rarely threatened, his general ineffectiveness when denied quality service from the flanks renewing the suspicion that he is more in decline than people have imagined.

The controversy surrounding Darren Anderton's selection ahead of David Beckham on the right side of midfield was given fresh impetus when the Manchester United man was sent on after Paul Ince's injury. Beckham's longer passing gave England more attacking thrust but did not greatly trouble Romania who defended in depth, usually ensuring attacks were not falling behind them.

Romania's first goal less than two minutes after half-time resulted from a criminal lapse in concentration on the left side of England's defence. There was no immediate threat from a throw-in, but Romania were allowed to work the ball into England's penalty area and create a chance that saw Moldovan slip Tony Adams for a goal that must have excited those Coventry City supporters who didn't feel like cursing him.

The biggest cheer heard from England's large contingent in Toulouse came when they saw Owen preparing to come on, with barely 15 minutes left, as a replacement for Teddy Sheringham who had done very little to justify his presence as Shearer's attacking partner.

Hoddle said afterwards that he had not given Owen any specific role, simply telling him to go out and enjoy himself. Enjoyment on a football field for Owen is putting the ball into the net, and his close-in equaliser from Neville's low centre revived England's faith in going wide to attack.

Until then the quality of England's crosses, most of them easily dealt with by Romania's tall goalkeeper and the central defenders, could be described as pathetic. Neville's delivery was more or less perfect and Owen made the most of it.

When the youngest goalscorer in England's history then shot against an upright with Bogdan Stelea probably beaten, the cry went up for his permanent inclusion.

Hoddle will have to think as much about this as a change in formation. Romania were disturbed by Owen's pace and directness but would, of course, have made provision for it had the Liverpool forward started the match. "The lad did very well," Hoddle said in assessment.

Well enough to make life even more difficult for Hoddle should he choose to leave Owen on the substitutes' bench for Friday's vital match against Colombia in Lens.

It will come as a big surprise if England do not qualify for the next round, but defeat in Toulouse has left their coach with a big dilemma. Does he change the shape of his team? Does he go with Owen?

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