Rio Ferdinand endorsed the move towards an adventurous 3-5-2 system under Steve McClaren last night when he blamed a culture of caution for England's consistent under-achievement in international football.
The England manager wants support for an out-of-form Wayne Rooney in tomorrow's European Championship qualifier against Macedonia and, as such, has spent the week working on a system not employed since David Beckham's first game as captain against Italy in November 2000. What remains in doubt is how McClaren, without the injured Owen Hargreaves, will deploy his players in this departure from the 4-4-2 formation.
While Ferdinand praised the natural ability of the squad, it appears increasingly unlikely that Shaun Wright-Phillips will occupy the right-wing role in the midfield five. Instead, that job could go to Phil Neville, with Ashley Cole on the left side, leaving Wright-Phillips, who has made just two starts for his club this season, on the bench. England's players have had three training sessions in the 3-5-2 formation but they are also primed to switch to 4-4-2 at any time in either tomorrow's Macedonia game or the Croatia game on Wednesday.
Such versatility will be welcome to the Manchester United defender, who believes the "free spirits" of English football were not encouraged under Sven Goran Eriksson and that England have suffered in major tournaments due to the fear of breaking beyond the confines of the 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 structures. "In the past, England have been too rigid," said Ferdinand. "Players have been put in positions and that's it, you just do what's expected of you. We've got to demand and expect a lot more of each other. We've been over-cautious in a lot of our play - not just in the last World Cup but in most World Cups. Other teams have thrown caution to the wind a bit and got good results."
Despite those misgivings, the 26-year-old believes a more expansive style has already developed under McClaren and will be in evidence regardless of the formation to face Macedonia, with the assistant coach, Terry Venables, believed to favour the wing-backs.
Ferdinand said: "In the first game against Greece I stepped up with the ball about three times, which was three more times than the World Cup. That was a frustration because I've always been brought up as a free spirit playing football and it wasn't really encouraged under the last regime. That's what the manager is trying to get into this squad, to be fluid as a unit attacking and defending. If we're going to be successful we need to be able to do that. When we played against Portugal you didn't see them in a rigid formation. You wouldn't say they had an out-and-out winger, they had players drifting."
Ferdinand also wants McClaren to challenge England's players verbally. In his new autobiography, the centre-half reveals how, on the coach journey away from Windsor Park following the humiliating defeat to Northern Ireland, he told the then assistant manager that the squad required a "kick up the backside" and, after the disappointment of the World Cup, he insists international players should not be immune from the criticism they encounter at club level.
He said: "Some players might squirm at getting bollocked but I don't think there's anything better than hearing the manager being honest in front of the lads or to your face. Telling you where you went wrong and what you've got to do to improve can only make you a better player. The boss at United [Sir Alex Ferguson] has achieved great things and he hasn't done that by pussy-footing around. The boss we've got now with England, I don't envisage him doing that either."
While the formation to face Macedonia remains a work in progress, there appears little doubt that Peter Crouch will be asked to support Rooney in attack with the emphasis on cajoling the 20-year-old out of his recent poor form.
"He'll get more of the ball playing with someone like Crouch," ventured Ferdinand. "I still think he can be the No9 up front and have someone playing off him, but he has been at his best for England when he is playing off someone else."
Rooney's advisers moved to defuse any tension between their client and the Football Association yesterday when they released a statement that absolved the English game's governing body of blame for the three-match suspension he incurred for a dismissal against Porto in August. It had been suggested that Rooney is still hurt by the FA's refusal to ignore his red card from the Amsterdam Tournament, but a spokes-man for Rooney said: "He does not blame the FA for any aspect of his game."Reuse content