McClaren's tactical tinkering could see Wright-Phillips overlooked

Click to follow
The Independent Football

For those England players who hope that the brave new world of 3-5-2 could be a resurrection of their international careers, the waiting goes on. Steve McClaren may have introduced a whole new way of thinking to his team this week but none of those who hope that it may throw open the door into the first XI are taking their place in the team for granted.

A team that accommodates five in midfield, and a manager who never misses the opportunity to emphasise the value of pace and width, may sound like an open invitation to bring Shaun Wright-Phillips back in from the cold. The Chelsea winger has played on the right side of five in practice games this week at England's base at Manchester United's Carrington training ground but even he will be far from confident of a starting place.

For McClaren, who has kept his players guessing this week, that is the nub of the problem. Against Macedonia and Croatia he would like to showcase the pacey and skilful options that he has on the right wing now that David Beckham has been forced into international retirement. The problem is that his obvious candidate, if Steven Gerrard is moved inside, is Aaron Lennon whose current knee injury mean that his first start for England appears to have tantalisingly passed him by.

It leaves McClaren with a straight choice between asking Wright-Phillips to do a job that Jose Mourinho has rarely deemed him fit for over the last 14 months or opt for a more conservative approach. The safe option would be Phil Neville, who has also figured on the right this week. He may not set England supporters' hearts a flutter but against a Croatia team who have never lost a competitive game in Zagreb he represents much less of a risk than Wright-Phillips. The fall has been long and cruel for Wright-Phillips and the worst aspect of it of late has been the absence of any sign it was about to end. He has languished within the gilded prison of Chelsea's reserves for more than a year now and the only hint of an escape has presented itself this week with a serious change in the thinking of the England team.

Can an England team in the 3-5-2 formation rescue him? It seems unlikely that Wright-Phillips will not play some part for England in the next five days but he has suffered from tactical experimentation in the past, never less so than when Sven Goran Eriksson picked him for a friendly at Villa Park in February 2005 against the Netherlands. Playing in a 4-3-3 system that evening he missed two early chances and was replaced after an hour - his international career has never quite recovered.

Risking the fragile confidence of a player who has still not even scored his first goal for Chelsea in a Euro 2008 qualifying match would be an unpleasant way for McClaren to undo the positive atmosphere around his new regime. It has also not escaped the attention of the new England coaching team that responsibility for the latest tactical departure has been laid at Venables - the original idea came from the England manager himself.

The questions over who to play in midfield remain but the identity of the England goalkeeper would appear to be a closed case even if there are still many who are unconvinced whether Paul Robinson is a natural choice for the No 1 spot. The Tottenham goalkeeper has not conceded in five games and with his most obvious challenger David James cut from the squad he might be entitled to think that the place is his own.

"Nobody likes to get criticism. I'm a human being and no one likes bad stuff said about them," Robinson said. "Maybe in certain games I've not been at my best, but I don't think I've played particularly poorly There's not a game for England where I've conceded a goal and I've thought: 'that goal is my fault'. I'm going into games feeling very confident and hopefully I can extend my record of clean sheets. If you take out the penalties against Portugal then I've conceded two goals in nine games."

Those two goals were against Sweden in the last of England's group matches in Germany. "The World Cup was difficult for us because before the tournament people were asking us questions as to whether we were going to win it," Robinson said. "Naturally we're all confident people and had confidence in our own ability and maybe it was blown out of proportion that we were going to win the World Cup."

The expectation, Robinson said, "was massive" although that is something we are getting used to hearing from England's players. If they do take another step into the unknown tomorrow with a new formation, then McClaren will be only too aware that it was the constant alterations to team shape that ultimately contributed to the bankrupting of his predecessor's reputation.

The past formation that helped to shape England's present

Bobby Robson switched from a flat back four to a 3-5-2 system during the 1990 World Cup finals - reportedly after pressure from senior players. Robson employed Terry Butcher, Des Walker and Mark Wright in defence, with Paul Parker and Stuart Pearce out wide.

Terry Venables also used the system during Euro '96, playing Darren Anderton and Steve McManaman as the wide men in a 3-5-2 formation. England produced a stunning performance to defeat the Dutch 4-1 as they once again reached the semi-finals.

Glenn Hoddle was also a 3-5-2 enthusiast, regularly picking five across midfield. Under Hoddle the likes of David Beckham, Anderton and Graeme Le Saux were used on the flanks.

Peter Taylor is the last England coach to have started with a 3-5-2, against Italy in Turin in 2000.

Sven Goran Eriksson briefly used the formation at the World Cup against Trinidad & Tobago, when he brought on Stewart Downing and Aaron Lennon.