England in spindrift: Wrong system, wrong players and the wrong direction

McClaren vows to continue his formation chancing - and refuses to contemplate failure
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Max Clifford's natural antipathy towards Margaret Thatcher presumably prevented him from making the recommendation, but in addressing media representatives in the wake - an appropriate word - of Wednesday's defeat in Zagreb, England's beleaguered head coach, Steve McClaren, might have taken as his text the words of one of the Iron Lady's more memorable speeches. As long ago as 1980 she won over backsliders and those of little faith at the Conservative Party conference by declaiming: "To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have one thing to say. You turn if you want to; the lady's not for turning."

After having accepted rather more responsibility for the decline in national morale over the past week than Lady T would ever have done, McClaren's message took on the same tone. The search for an occasional alternative to 4-4-2 goes on, and 3-5-2, whatever may have been assumed from the débâcle of Zagreb, may yet be seen again.

Despite now losing his expensive media adviser, the head coach is not for turning. He will continue to take the long road to try and lead England out of a depressing sequence of ending up in culs-de-sac, while warning that they are "going to trip up occasionally" and that the embarrassing stumbles at Old Trafford last weekend and the Maksimir Stadium on Wednesday may not be the last. That, he insisted, was the price for breaking with the past and the automatic assumption of a 4-4-2 system regarded throughout the world as so quintessentially English that, as Croatia's forthright coach, Slaven Bilic, pointed out: "You have a magazine called it".

"Can we change to other systems?" McClaren asked, in what turned out to be rhetorical mode. "Maybe that's the barrier we have to go through. And how do you start that? By being dogmatic and not going with the times and just sticking to what you know, which hasn't been successful enough in the past? Or do you say, 'No, to break through you have to take a few risks, look at certain things and say, yes you're going to fall down and fail but that's part and parcel of building a team'?"

It was an interesting question, albeit not one guaranteed to win much sympathy in the immediate aftermath of such a deflating five days. "We've tried something different," he continued. "OK, it's not worked, but we've got to continue doing that because if we don't, we'll never break through that barrier. You'll always end up being disappointed, the fans will be disappointed and the players will be. We've underachieved and not done as well as we should do, but how do you get through that by just sticking by what you know and what you do? You have to try things, and on a longer road you're going to trip up."

Asked if he could envisage 3-5-2 being seen again, he replied defiantly: "Yeah, it's not the end, we'll look at other things as well." Should that be the case, it would be as well to have engaged in some deep discussion on the subject with his assistant, Terry Venables, whose variation on the theme at Euro 96 was an altogether more positive one than England in Zagreb. Steve McManaman and Darren Anderton - naturally attacking wide players - were employed in the wing-back positions that sunny summer rather than full-backs like Gary Neville and Ashley Cole, who brought individual - not to say idiosyncratic - interpretations to the role. When a young Neville played his part in 1996, he and Stuart Pearce, the natural full-backs, were used as part of the three-man defence, standing guard on either side of Tony Adams.

As virtually all of the 600-odd other games Neville has played for club and country have been as an orthodox right-back, it was hardly surprising that his every inclination against Croatia was to take up positions drilled into him week after week. Cole, on the other hand, instinctively reverted to being the winger he once was and, like so many modern full-backs, was found wanting defensively as Croatia's wide players cleverly pushed up to force the English pair back.

McClaren denied that his choice of personnel and a formation that too easily becomes 5-3-2 under pressure was essentially timid. "It was to give a platform, give a stamp on the game early on," he said. "Then changes could be made. But having conceded the first goal, that wasn't to be. We've lost 2-0 with the second goal being a fluke. Paul Robinson [below, left] kept us in the game early, but at times we controlled the game and quietened the crowd."

Which periods these were was not specified. "One thing we said at half-time was that we needed to push on, but unfortunately we didn't do that. So it depends on the makeup of your team. You might have five really attacking players [as the back five]. We picked a team to win and we didn't win, so it didn't work."

Next month, while facing supposedly friendly fire in Amsterdam, England could be pushed down to fourth place in the European Championship group table. Would a good manager qualify with the players McClaren has at his disposal, he was asked. "Yes" was the emphatic answer, which every member of the Football Association's International Committee should cut out and keep. If England do not make it to a major tournament for the first time since 1994, that reply would at least offer every justification to terminate a four-year contract that should only ever have been for half that time, given how controversial the appointment was.

Facing talk of a sacking after five games is something of a first even for an England manager. McClaren responded: "I accept all the criticism [but] I think that's too early to reflect on. We've had five games.

"I'm not even contemplating [resigning], I've got every confidence in us qualifying. It's not as if I'm stuck in a muddle and don't know where I am. I know that to get through I'm going to have to try things, I know I'm going to get criticism for doing it. But I'm the man taking it on and I believe we've got the players to do that. It's my job first and foremost to get them qualified. Yes, along the way, we're going to hit the buffers because we try things, but the goal is to get there and I believe we will."

The Holland fixture is now "an important one for everybody", the players were told in a depressed dressing room on Wednesday. "We can't treat it as a friendly, we've got to treat it as a game where we show that we've learned from what's happened in these last five games. The World Cup was a disappointment and people will say the start of this qualification is a disappointment. We accept that and we have to find out the reasons."

With that, McClaren, his coaches, players and entourage were on their way home, missing the most succinct summary of their week's work. On one of the many German television channels piped into Croatian hotels, Günther Netzer, the scourge of England in a European Championship tie at Wembley almost 35 years ago, was invited to comment on the present-day version. "They're not good enough," he said simply. "We saw that at the World Cup."

Aces of pace: Four for the England fast track

Andy Johnson (Everton)

Hamstrung in the final minute of his last club match before the international break, the £8.6m Goodison goal-machine is sure to feature in McClaren's plans for the friendly in Amsterdam on 15 November. His four caps to date include just the one start, against the USA in Chicago in May 2005.

Aaron Lennon (Tottenham)

Back in training after undergoing knee surgery a month ago, the 19-year-old Lennon offers England everything that the 31-year-old David Beckham no longer can on the right flank - a direct route in behind enemy lines, and at speed. Not yet the finished article, but the most likely lad on the England right.

Theo Walcott (Arsenal)

As one of just two fully-fit strikers, England's new boy wonder could not get a game in the World Cup. With no truly fast forwards in the past two Euro qualifiers, McClaren must be tempted to utilise Walcott's searing pace after the way the 17-year-old ripped through the Germans on Under-21 duty.

Gabriel Agbonlahor (A Villa)

Martin O'Neill knows a good winger when he sees one, and is grooming a fine prospect in the 19-year-old Agbonlahor, whose lightning pace and excellent control were formerly used in a central striking role. Gave Ashley Cole a hard time at Stamford Bridge and started ahead of Walcott for England Under-21s.

Simon Turnbull