England's defence: The fear factor

How can England end up defending so badly, having started so well? Graeme Le Saux who has been there, done that (and has the shirt to prove it) explains a worrying problem
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The Independent Football

How can England play so positively at the start of matches and then lose their motivation, their shape - and eventually the plot? It's happened many times in the past, and it's happening again in Germany.

Having been part of England defences when this happened, I have experienced the problem first-hand. Now, like everyone else, I am watching on television in frustration. But one thing I do know. Solving this riddle could be the difference between going home early and making a real impact on the tournament.

It is partly cultural. There is something in the English mentality. It's not solely an English trait, but England are a good example of what might be termed limited imagination. At a certain stage in some games, the thought process simply runs as far as getting people behind the ball - but goes no further.

The better way is - obviously - to be defensive but in a way that allows you to be progressive too. Other nations retain the mentality that they can still move the ball up the pitch, in stages, which keeps the opposition vulnerable. England often seem to run out of ideas. This is a huge failing at international level, where probing and tempo - and, particularly, controlling the tempo - are so much more important.

In Tuesday's game the Swedes changed the tempo, took control in the second half and England floundered. In my view, Sven Goran Eriksson got his substitutions wrong - because his mentality was wrong. I think he should have taken David Beckham off and introduced pace in the form of Aaron Lennon. While Eriksson could argue he was vindicated with Steven Gerrard's goal, he missed an opportunity to change the whole complexion of the game earlier.

The consequences of not doing that were evident. Having been there I know just how the England players felt. You've given the opposition the upper hand and the gradual erosion in your own confidence starts. It's debilitating. You find yourself isolated.

You feel that wherever you are, you're never in the right place. You lose confidence in the players around you. Everyone starts to withdraw a bit. Instead of getting in an opponent's face, knowing or believing (and the effect is often the same) that there's someone there to back you up, you hold your position because you don't have the confidence to be positive.

It's not cynical, or lazy, or perhaps even a conscious decision. It's an erosion of self-belief, made worse by lack of a plan and sometimes lack of guidance from the coach, whose jobis to see what's happening and order changes or make substitutions.

The fear of being exposed creates negativity. And I think Eriksson himself creates a negative mindset on the pitch by encouraging his players to be more defensive. I've played in games where you feel you're hanging on, and it's a horrible feeling. As a defender under pressure, there's nothing better than being able to pass to someone who can run with pace and strength, take the ball away, and allow you to move up the pitch. Change the momentum.

Famously - or infamously - I had the misfortune to be central to Romania's second (last-minute) goal in their 2-1 win in the second group game at the 1998 World Cup. I don't think we were playing too badly. We'd come from 1-0 down to 1-1. But the principle was still the same: us hanging on, with a lack of cohesion.

I was playing as a left wing-back. My Chelsea team-mate Dan Petrescu was on their right. I saw him moving across the pitch, almost horizontally, towards their left side. He ran behind our centre-backs. I ran well away from where I should have been, because no one else was dealing with him. Even when I was with him, I thought, "He's right-footed, he has no angle to go for goal, he's got to come back inside". Then I took his elbow in the face, which knocked me back half a step. He shot with his left. Goal. We lost.

I got absolutely slaughtered by the press. (No matter how much players claim to be insulated, you know what is being said: you talk to people at home, newspapers do get into the hotel). In the dressing-room afterwards, no one pointed the finger. But no one gave any consolation at all either. I had my chance to explain what happened, and did, and all Glenn Hoddle said was something about me needing to be stronger. Maybe the elbow looked like a little tap. It didn't feel like one.

After a result like that, you're all down. Your feet are aching. Your shin-pads are hurting. You're exhausted, disappointed, deadly quiet. Personally, the pasting I took from the press made me very uncertain of myself. It was hard going into the next game, against Colombia, low on confidence, battered, down, unsure. But we played well, and won. Only now do I truly realise how people on the outside view things so blatantly in black and white. Heroes or villains and nothing in between.

England now are in a much better situation than in 1998, when we faced Argentina in the second round. Now we have a much better draw and we still have everything to play for. One very good performance and momentum is back. The crucial thing now is confidence, on the pitch and by Eriksson. And if England look like losing the initiative, it's up to Eriksson to make the changes - with pace from the bench if necessary - to give his team the confidence to seize it back.

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