McClaren on the attack with Carrick and big stick
There will be one team playing in the 3-5-2 formation at Old Trafford today but it won't be England. Steve McClaren's tactical experimentation this week might have expanded the horizons of his players yet it is the tried and trusted 4-4-2 system to which he will return, leaving Macedonia, who favour a three-man defence, to make the innovations.
The England manager may yet change to an alternative formation if the score gets comfortable this afternoon but in the third Euro 2008 qualifier of his regime, his big decision is replacing the injured Owen Hargreaves in midfield with Michael Carrick. McClaren spoke yesterday about the importance of an alternative system, and 3-5-2 has certainly got his players talking even if the manager is not yet ready to risk it from the start just yet.
It has been a peculiar week of tactical upheaval with England that ended yesterday with McClaren doing something his predecessor Sven Goran Eriksson never bothered to do: admonishing a newspaper's coverage. He had taken particular offence at one newspaper's suggestion that England's tactical destiny lay in the hands of the players who would make the decision rather than their manager, and McClaren seized the moment to make clear his own authority.
Player power, either in reality or even just perceived, is not a phenomenon that sits easy with football managers and even less so at the Football Association where Eriksson came to be regarded as the ultimate patsy for the wishes of some individuals. The anxiety that he would not be perceived in the same way was evident in the manner McClaren launched his response. "The players did not have a meeting - they do not pick the team," he said, "I, along with the coaches, pick the tactics and the game plan and I want to clear that up."
For a manager as carefully attendant to his image within the media, this was one battle that McClaren was not prepared to lose and there is no better time to fight it when your side has won all three games and scored 10 goals. He has seen Eriksson fail to stand up for himself enough times to know that, in the England manager's job, you get no credit for not defending your position when you believe you have a case.
McClaren has kept his players guessing this week and only confirmed the side to them yesterday morning. No major Premiership team plays 3-5-2, and the England management were unconvinced that Shaun Wright-Phillips was ready to start, but there is no doubt the new formation will play a role in England's Euro 2008 qualification campaign.
"It's not secret that we have had two sessions this week working on a 3-5-2," McClaren said. "When you get together, you haven't much time and I've always said that it's a system we can go to. We have the players to do it. I've watched it for a couple of sessions and I was very comfortable with what I saw and so were the players. It's something we may use in the future."
The replacement of Hargreaves with Carrick is not a like-for-like choice, Scott Parker would have been a more exact fit for the Bayern Munich midfielder. Since he was controversially thrown into the side against Ecuador in the World Cup finals second round, Carrick has played just six minutes of international football, and this will be only his ninth cap for his country.
Today is also an important occasion if only because it marks the return of Wayne Rooney playing under the new manager for the first time - how McClaren manages the personality and talents of England's most gifted player will come to define his regime. Rooney is capable of great things, but McClaren does not need reminding that it was probably the 20-year-old's contribution above all that brought Eriksson's reign to a close so dismally in Germany this summer.
As well as defending his managerial authority, McClaren neatly sidesteppedthe issue of whether Rooney's famously brittle temper had been treated to any sessions with the new team psychologist, Bill Beswick, insisting that his new assistant tended to speak to the squad as a whole. There is a determination within the England camp that Beswick will not be seen as an oddball who assumes the damaging profile that Eileen Drewery had in the last days of Glenn Hoddle's regime.
With Beswick's non-traditional role in the camp, there remains the danger that he could, unfairly or otherwise, become portrayed as one of the manager's eccentricities and certainly both McClaren and Gary Neville were asked about him more than once yesterday. The word is that Beswick has been putting over simple messages collectively to the players - he gave them a presentation this week on the secret of Michael Jordan's success - although the door is open for private consultations.
If he can get another victory today, and avoid defeat in Croatia, McClaren will have made a start that will allow him a comfortable Christmas until the Euro 2008 qualification campaign resumes in March. He is still chasing out the last vestiges of the Eriksson years and yesterday assured everyone that he would, as Rio Ferdinand had hoped, be unafraid to take on players. "If the point needs making like that, then so be it," he said. "Sometimes I have flown off the handle."
The chance to exert his beliefs and some of his personality yesterday did McClaren no harm. It was a lesson Eriksson never learned, that refusing to participate in the endless media-driven debate over the England team is not an option likely to bring long-term success. The 3-5-2 against 4-4-2 question, and who decided it, was won by McClaren - now all his team have to do is show this afternoon that he made the right choice.
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