Mind the skills gap: McClaren's men score poorly on technique test

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The Independent Football

Anyone at Wembley last Wednesday who made it as far as page 67 of their £6 match programme will have found Sir Trevor Brooking preaching a favourite theme: "There are concerns over the skill gap between English youngsters and their European counterparts, which has an obvious impact on our future success as a football nation." Perhaps spectators were reading those wise words during one of the periods in which Germany effortlessly knocked the ball around, having been frequently presented with it by their opponents.

The Football Association have recently appointed 66 coaches to work on skills with the five-to-11 age group. So England's prospects for the 2024 European Championships are looking good. Next summer's tournament in Austria and Switzerland is, however, more of a worry, and while the FA's far-sighted director of football development can and should be looking to the future, England's head coach has to concern himself with the here and next month.

That means two critical competitive matches in the space of five days, at home to Israel and Russia, two of the three teams currently above Steve McClaren's squad in the qualifying group. The FA's strategy at the original fixtures meeting was to save a number of crucial home games for the last three months of the campaign, hoping to pick up sufficient points in the meantime to avoid weighing down the matches with undue pressure. Despite having negotiated a schedule largely to their liking, the grand plan unravelled when seven points were dropped at home to Macedonia and away to Israel and Croatia.

With a visit to Moscow still to come, McClaren admitted on Wednesday night that it was necessary to win all four remaining home games, though like the smoothest of politicians he handled a question about whether Wembley now inspires visiting teams more than England by discussing something entirely different: "Everybody knew the difficulties facing us before this game and the players nearly got through them. When you look at the amount of chances and possession and some of our football, I'd be disappointed if we weren't playing football like that.

"Goals always change games. The [equalising] goal definitely changed the tempo of the game because we were in total control and gave them a little sniff and our reaction after that was disappointing. We got it back before half-time, but in that spell we committed errors and gave the ball away far too cheaply."

Send for those skills coaches. Add some goalscoring coaches as well; in the three qualifying games where points have been surrendered, England crucially failed to find the net. Take away the undemanding opposition supplied by Estonia and Andorra, who each lost theirfirst seven group games, and the record since last September is three goals in seven matches. Just one has been provided by a striker, namely Wayne Rooney, who will not be fit for either of next month's encounters.

Peter Crouch is suspended for the first of them, which made his introduction as a substitute ahead of Jermain Defoe paradoxical at best. The reason Defoe had to sit on the padded seats for even longer than in a Spurs match was, according to McClaren, that the number of permitted substitutions (six) had also to take account of replacing Paul Robinson and the injured Rio Ferdinand.

Michael Owen looked understandably short of fitness and match practice, and from that point of view it is unfortunate that there is an unusually short gap of 16 days between the next two international matches. "Michael Owen will score goals," McClaren promised. The question is how soon.

And given that endorsement of the Newcastle man's selection against Israel, who partners him? Unless Steven Gerrard was to be pushed forward just behind him, it will be nobody with a half-decent international scoring record. Of the other contenders, Andy Johnson and Darren Bent, both withdrawn injured in midweek, have no goals in nine appearances; Defoe, often limited to cameos, has three in 24; Alan Smith one in 17; and Kieron Dyer has not even managed one in 32.

Germany's impressive coach, Joachim Löw, might have been parroting McClaren in insisting: "What's really important is the next game." In Germany's case, and unfortunately for Wales, that is in Cardiff. Meanwhile, Wembley awaits Israel and Russia, desperate for not one first home win but two.

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