Unbeaten for a year (as matches with penalty shoot-outs are officially recorded as draws); seven clean sheets in the past eight games and five in succession; top of the European Championship qualifying group with maximum points and no goals conceded. Viewed from as far away as, say, Italy, where the world champions under their new coach, Roberto Donadoni, are already engulfed in crisis, English football must appear to be glowing with a rosy-red hue. The reality is rather different.
Following the frustration of the Eriksson years, Steve McClaren and his players will find it harder winning over press and public than beating the might of Greece, Andorra and Macedonia. After all the previous false dawns and failures, the botched process of replacing Eriksson and the unimaginative appointment that followed, the anthem England's travelling band should be trumpeting is "Won't Get Fooled Again".
The optimistic enthusiasm that once greeted every new incumbent of the manager's office has been replaced by widespread disenchantment and a feeling summed up by The Who all those years ago: "Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss". It is an impression McClaren was always going to find difficult to avoid, having spent so many flawed campaigns as Eriksson's assistant.
Some of his attempts to distance himself from the immediate past, such as casting David Beckham into outer darkness, have been welcomed. Others already look more dubious. Reliance on the lies and damned lies that too often constitute football "facts" and figures is one of them.
"Just look at the statistics!" the head coach purred when considering Peter Crouch's scoring feat of 11 goals in 14 internationals - a tally that might be taken to suggest, for instance, that the Liverpool man is far more valuable to his country than Wayne Rooney, who has taken 33 games to amass such a total.
Like a number of modern managers and coaches, McClaren is a devotee of ProZone, the system of match analysis which tells anyone who is interested, among other things, how many yards a player runs during a game. Thus we were invited in Skopje last week to marvel at the fact that against Andorra Crouch covered more yards than any other player, Frank Lampard touched the ball 100 times, and Stewart Downing apparently put in nine crosses. No mention of whether Crouch's yardage was ultimately any more productive than the work of a Gary Lineker or Jimmy Greaves (second and third most prolific goalscorers in England's history), poachers who would save their energy for putting the ball in the net; no note of what became of Downing's largely predictable crosses or Lampard's three-figure touches, although not one of either led directly to a goal against an appallingly weak Andorran defence. Not Downing but drowning, as it were, in a welter of irrelevant information.
Two ineffective performances over the past nine days by Lampard and the Middlesbrough winger, in conjunction with Steven Gerrard's subdued effort last Wednesday, have again raised the question of midfield balance - one never resolved during the World Cup, which McClaren thought he had solved by ditching Beckham, sticking Gerrard on the right and bringing in a genuine winger in Downing. Genuine, but limited, it transpired. What could and should be tried in next month's double-header at home to Macedonia and away to Croatia is the return of Joe Cole on the left, with Aaron Lennon given the proper chance he deserves on the right after seven cameos as a late substitute, and Gerrard moved inside to displace Lampard.
Not one of those Downing crosses was as effective as the one Lennon landed right on Crouch's head for the final goal against Andorra. It was hardly Lennon's fault either to be brought on in Skopje just as England were sinking further and further back, with the result that at one time he seemed to be intent on dispatching the ball into the Macedonian mountains.
Cole, whose partnership down the left with his namesake Ashley should flourish all the more after daily training sessions at Chelsea, can be predictable in coming inside on to his right foot, but he does at least have a trick or two in his locker. Gerrard has long maintained that his best position is the one occupied by Lampard, who would benefit from a break after three years as a regular.
Owen Hargreaves, imp-ressive again, should clearly keep the holding role. He has confirmed in three matches this season the excellent impression made at the World Cup, and appears to have put behind him the disappointment of missing out on a move to Manchester United, claiming: "I'm going back to Bayern, I'm over it now and I've got a lot of big games coming up. I stated my wishes but I'm back at Bayern, and it doesn't play on my mind at all. Any time I get a longer run in the team, I've felt more comfortable with each game. I'm not in it for headlines, I'm in it to win games, and we've got six points."
Hargreaves has provided one of the positives of the McClaren reign, albeit one handed on by Eriksson, and so has John Terry, both in his performances and as a captain. Whether or not it should be taken as a rebuke to Beckham's leadership, the head coach acknowledged: "What we're trying to do is rebuild the confidence and rebuild the belief. You always wonder how they'll react after going out of a tournament and for me they've reacted in the perfect way, really come together as a team. John Terry has epitomised that and brought everybody together, there's a great spirit there. The intensity of everything they do, they really want to win, want to do everything right, and what pleases me is the manner in which we won.
"Yes, we'd all like to win games four- or five-nil, but that doesn't happen, and sometimes you have to take defining moments and grind out results. We've got off to a great start. If you can draw or win away from home and win your home games, that more or less qualifies you. Away performances are built on a team ethic and teamwork."
Those qualities and more will be required in Zagreb against Croatia, who are likely to be a different side to the one England brushed aside 4-2 at Euro 2004, with Rooney outstanding. Four points from the October double may or may not be acceptable. But the little numbers opposite England's name in the group table will then be the only ones that matter.Reuse content