Keegan turns back the tactical clock

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The Independent Football

At Wembley this afternoon Germany will play their 56th World Cup qualifying tie. So far in this 66-year odyssey they have lost only once and even that defeat, against Portugal in Stuttgart 15 years ago, came after qualification was secured.

At Wembley this afternoon Germany will play their 56th World Cup qualifying tie. So far in this 66-year odyssey they have lost only once and even that defeat, against Portugal in Stuttgart 15 years ago, came after qualification was secured.

That is the historical measure of what England are up against this afternoon. The home side, who have failed to reach three of the last seven World Cups (Germany have never failed to qualify) cannot even take refuge in their Wembley heritage. The ghosts of 1966 may be evoked this afternoon but Germany are not only unbeaten under the twin towers in the last quarter-century, they enjoyed the experience of winning Euro 96 here so much they appropriated "Football's Coming Home" for themselves.

Fortunately for Kevin Keegan's team the past, even on a day laden with nostalgia, will be rendered meaningless once Stefano Braschi signals the start of Wembley's final international at 3pm.

More relevant is a post-Euro 96 decline in German football even more marked than that of England. The lumbering duel between these ageing dinosaurs in Charleroi this summer exposed both nations' heavyweight pretensions and, while each have shown signs of recovery, neither side are out of intensive care. Germany, unlike England, changed their coach and have since won two matches but their improvement has been exaggerated. The Spanish players beaten 4-0 in August had barely begun pre-season training and the 2-0 victory margin over Greece last month was flattering.

Rudi Völler, hamstrung by a domestic league which began the season with 209 foreign players, an average of more than 11 per club, has few options when it comes to playing personnel. This is highlighted in attack where the deployment of Carsten Jancker has been an insult to the memory of Gerd Müller, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Völler himself. On this occasion Jancker, still troubled by a sore toe, is likely to be replaced by Oliver Bierhoff whose record of 30 goals in 50 internationals commands respect even if his mobility is restricted.

The video of the Greece tie revealed a square defence and a midfield hypnotised by Jancker's height into hitting long balls. However, it also emphasised the danger of Mehmet Scholl, in open play and at set-pieces, the energetic promise of Sebastian Deisler, and the excellence of goalkeeper Oliver Kahn. Add the return of Christian Ziege, which should yield creative improvement, and possibly that of Dietmar Hamann, which would bring midfield discipline, and it is clear Germany cannot be written off.

Certainly not by England, not if the worrying reports of a tactical relapse emerging from the camp are true. England's most convincing performances of the last year have been against Argentina (three at the back, David Beckham in the centre of a five-man midfield), Ukraine (three at the back, Steve McManaman as the link-man in a five-man midfield) and France (Beckham in central midfield, Paul Scholes as the link man). So today, according to rumour and his own admission, Keegan will play a flat back four, Beckham on the wing and twin strikers. Tactical genius or, as Gary Lineker described him this summer, tactical ingenue?

It is his head on the block so Keegan may as well live and die by his own instincts but this team does run the risk of being overrun in central midfield which, following the withdrawal of the injury-prone Steven Gerrard, who suffered a thigh injury in training, is likely to have 33-year-old Dennis Wise in the anchor role. Paul Scholes, asked why the midfield workload overcame him for England but not when playing 4-4-2 for Manchester United, said: "There seem to be a lot more midfielders in international games. If I went forward in the summer it left Paul Ince with two or three coming at him."

Keegan said yesterday: "It is a big pitch and playing five in midfield has sometimes been to our advantage. But I've picked a side which I feel is the right one to take advantage of their weaknesses and combat their strengths."

With Germany fielding six in midfield, including Marco Bode to man-mark Beckham, and Scholl in the hole, England can only match them if Gary Neville pushes up on Ziege and Graeme Le Saux provides width on the left. Beckham is said to be fit, though since the same was said of Gerrard on Thursday that cannot be taken for granted.

In the absence of Darren Anderton, this critic would play Ray Parlour or Kieron Dyer on the right, move Beckham inside, push Scholes into the hole and leave Michael Owen on the bench with a view to bringing him on with 30 minutes to play. Alternatively play three at the back and Scholes behind the front two.

There are two outside influences which make this game hard to call. One is the effect of it being the last at Wembley, which could inspire or inhibit both teams, the other is the impact on the Germans of the scandal engulfing their coach-in-waiting Christoph Daum. Experience of similar controversy with England suggests it could bind the team together but the extra dimension in this case is the Bayer Leverkusen-Bayern Munich rivalry. Völler and Daum are connected with Leverkusen, while Daum's chief critic, Uli Hoeness, is associated with the Munich club. More than half the squad are playing, or have played for, one of the clubs.

The impression in the German camp yesterday was that all was sweetness and light so it seems England will have to earn the three points. They have the players to succeed, and comfortably, but do they have the structure?