Four games in and already Steve McClaren seems to be facing the moment that will define the early part of his reign - perhaps even all of it. Tonight he asks his England team to play a 3-5-2 system that no Premiership team uses, with a midfielder, Scott Parker, who has never started an international, against a Croatia team that have never lost a qualifier at home.
If it goes wrong, it will be McClaren's entry in the pantheon of the darkest moments of England managers past. Filed alongside that day six years ago that Kevin Keegan picked Gareth Southgate as a holding midfielder against Germany, with Dennis Wise on the bench and Paul Ince in the stands. In the same category as when Graham Taylor's side lost to Norway in 1993, with Gary Pallister on the right side of the three centre-backs - and then lost their grip on World Cup qualification.
History has not smiled on the innovators. McClaren dismissed the suggestion that switching to 3-5-2, with Jamie Carragher deputising for the injured Ledley King, was a gamble. Without the suspended Steven Gerrard, and Owen Hargreaves, Joe Cole and Aaron Lennon all injured, some might argue that he has nooption. But after the deflation of Saturday's draw with Macedonia it is certainly a bold way of resurrecting the nation's faith in their team.
When England trained last night there was no Rio Ferdinand in the final work-out. Instead Gary Neville moved to fill the role as the third centre-back in his place alongside Terry in the centre and Carragher on the left. In Neville's role at right wing-back his brother, Phil, filled, in although Ferdinand is expected to be passed fit.
No one is seriously suggesting that McClaren's job security is at stake at this stage, but it will be a long wait to his next Euro 2008 qualifier in March against Israel if things go wrong tonight. With all that to contemplate, the England manager said he was still sleeping well, though he did admit that at times the draw with Macedonia had felt more like a defeat in the aftermath. How was he standing up to the scrutiny? "That is true, that's the job. I know that. I've been around Sven for five years and I know that's part and parcel of it. I'm not contemplating that [losing] situation at all."
To put it in its context, 3-5-2 was the formation played by only one of the 16 teams that contested Euro 2004, although, in defence of the system, it was Greece who were the odd ones out and they ended up winning the tournament. This England team have had four sessions in the new formation - two of them last week and the most recent last night in the floodlit Maksimir stadium - and they could hardly have picked a more robust test of it.
Although no one from the England establishment was officially confirming it was 3-5-2, John Terry said he had played it "many times in my career", though at Chelsea it seems to be a desperation measure at the end of games. "It has been spoken about and I think we will be comfortable with it," Terry said. "It might be an attacking ploy from us to get at them a bit more. Get in their faces a bit more."
With that he hinted at the support Parker's inclusion would give to Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick in the midfield, but what effect would it have on a defence that has conceded two goals in 10 games? "We have asked that question as well," Terry said. "We have covered everything since the last game and, obviously, not conceding and looking solid has been a big factor. If we do decide to go that [3-5-2] way, everyone is comfortable with it. That is the option we have got."
So why is McClaren attempting such a radical change in a match in which he has so much to lose? There was a sense from the manager that, if this side, and perhaps the culture of the England football team, want to be better than a quarter-final tournament team, then this is the key to greater sophistication.
"All I can do is realise that we need flexibility, realise we need different systems and that our players need to adapt to whatever system comes," McClaren said. "That is what we are doing, we are playing football matches using the experience and learning our lesson. And therefore you are educating all the time.
"You can't gamble, you have to know and I am quite confident after seeing the players and knowing the players that, if we have to go three at the back, they have played three at the back before. Many of the players - so no problem."
Tactical formations might have dominated the day but there was still plenty of the old talk that accompanies England teams in adversity. "We need character, we need pride, we need passion, attitude," McClaren said, "and we need a team out there who have the experience to handle the situation."
Putting that into words for him before the match will be John Terry who also announced his intention to deliver a rousing address in the changing rooms - as has become his custom at Chelsea. "I am going to make a speech. What I say is between me and the players but it will be similar to 'stand up and be counted'," Terry said.
Terry said that he had watched his video of the Macedonia match three times since Saturday, so disconsolate was he at England's failure to win. They may one daysee recordings of tonight as a masterpiece if all runs smoothly - the alternative is too awful for McClaren to contemplate.Reuse content