Watching England's Under-21 team the night before the seniors play opposition from the same country, there is always a temptation to look for hints as to how the main game might pan out. The conclusion about the opponents can often be crudely summarised as: played nice football but don't like it up 'em. Yet taking in events at Old Trafford last Wednesday night via the previous evening's Under-21 match in Derby was to confirm an extension of that generalisation, which is that confronting Continental sophistication with the British bulldog mentality takes you only so far and no further. Additionally, when the bulldog is in as docile a mood as most of Steve McClaren's team were on Wednesday, England suffer the worst of both worlds.
At the appropriately named Pride Park on Tuesday night, that arch-patriot Stuart Pearce managed to persuade his young charges to raise their game sufficiently to force a 2-2 draw against a superior Spanish side after trudging in at half-time 2-0 down. An important part of the strategy was the positive use of substitutions, which included taking off the former local favourite Tom Huddlestone and bringing on players to influence the game rather than as some sort of thanks for turning up. England finished the 90 minutes on top and were applauded off by a youthful crowd numbering almost 30,000.
Pearce may have been in charge of an England team for the first time, but his experience of wearing the three lions taught him a lesson he was evidently able to convey to his squad in the short period of time available. "In football you have to stick in games," he said afterwards. "What I've found over the years is that quite often you come up against sides technically better than you are but you've got to stick in there, and you find the ebb and flow changes slightly. That happened when we were two-nil down.
"In international football I played against many, many teams technically better than us. But when the game finishes you look at the scoreboard and say, 'What was the result today?' I lost six or seven games for England out of 78. But if you asked me how many games the opposition were technically much better than us it was a hell of a lot more than seven."
One of those would unquestionably be the goalless encounter against Spain at Euro 96, when Pearce provided an iconic moment (pictured in both match programmes last week) with his clenched-fist, wild-eyed reaction of "joy, relief and passion released" to scoring in the successful penalty shoot-out. What the games in Derby and Manchester confirmed was that, 11 years on, England are still well behind Spain in terms of manipulating the ball. The two Spanish teams both seemed to contain clever little midfielders wonderfully adept at taking the ball under pressure and moving it on to a shirt of the same colour even when in danger of being bitten from behind by a bulldog.
In contrast, it was particularly depressing to hear Steve McClaren late on Wednesday night still echoing the lament of England managers down the years: "We didn't keep possession and that was disappointing, the way we gave the ball away. We need to be better at that." How many times was that point made before and after sweltering midsummer matches in the era of Sven Goran Eriksson alone? It is equally applicable on a winter's night in Manchester.
A further complication, however, is that from the first day of his promotion from coach of that team to head coach, McClaren has been keen to add "pace and penetration", two qualities natural to the English game but not easily compatible with his equally favoured mantra of "patience and possession". Thus while keen to have players such as Aaron Lennon, Stewart Downing, Kieron Dyer and Shaun Wright-Phillips charging at opposing defences, he wants to keep the ball as well.
The balance between the two objectives can easily become as lopsided as England's attack looked on Wednesday, with Dyer playing alongside an ineffective Peter Crouch down the centre. Rather than the 4-3-3 used against Holland in the previous game last November, the formation therefore became something of a hybrid, quickly recognised by the wily old Spanish coach Luis Aragones as offering his side space and opportunity in front of the exposed left-back, Phil Neville. (And why Neville, by the way, even if Chelsea had run out of left-backs to send to McClaren?) "I was surprised we managed to get two against one down England's left," said Aragones, completing a good day after somehow managing to win his appeal against a charge of racism in the Spanish courts. "It surprised me how they left only one man there."
Pearce may be ambivalent about playing 4-3-3 but the Under-21s, who have used it for some time, had a lesson for their seniors. "They play a system they understand," he said. "They've got an abundance of wide players like Ashley Young, Wayne Routledge and Theo Walcott but also a shortage of strikers, so the system lends itself to the personnel they've got available."
He also had a nice phrase for Leroy Lita, the Reading forward in a vein of scoring form who was brought on at half-time: "We said to Leroy, 'Start on the right and come off your perch'." In his boots of canary yellow, the flamboyant Lita did just that and was eventually in the centre of the six-yard box to head the equalising goal, earning a positive mention from the manager, as did two other attacking players, Blackburn's David Bentley and Preston's David Nugent.
For the international week next month, when England's Under-21s are due to play Italy at Wembley, Manchester City have put Pearce in the bizarre situation of being allowed to attend the game but not take charge of it. Perhaps he should fly out instead to Israel, where McClaren will be overseeing a match critical to his and the senior team's future, and calling on some familiar qualities : "We need to get some belief back, claw our way and show character. We've got to show the English mentality when our backs are against the wall and we're not performing so well."
Bulldogs backed up against a Tel Aviv wall and showing their claws; it may not be a pretty sight, or night.Reuse content