New England bandwagon hits the buffers

McClaren's Brave New World is put in perspective by solid Macedonian defensive work
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The Independent Football

The other night, for those sad enough to go satellite channel-surfing, there was a Match of the Day, from 1984, screened. Jimmy Hill introduced us to Hull City versus Preston North End, from the old Third Division. You couldn't help but notice one of the home side's midfielders, and not just because of his then fashionably long, ginger hair. His passing was precise, he tackled and he covered. His shooting was accurate.

Here, yesterday, that same character, now the England head coach, could only stand on the touchline, scratching a head now depleted of many of those locks, seeking an explanation as to why his team were incapable of displaying those qualities - or, at least, did not exhibit them in sufficient measure to trouble Srecko Katanec's Macedonia team who brought this supposed brave new world of liberated football into some kind of perspective. As the England head coach conceded: "We weren't on the front foot, as normal. We didn't drive at them. Well, we did for certain periods, but we didn't sustain it. We need to do better than that."

The second half was an improvement on an artless first half, and Steven Gerrard's trademark howitzer, which struck the bar late on, may have been the end product of some scintillating footwork from substitute Shaun Wright-Phillips. It would have been an ill-merited three points for a team who weren't cohesive in any area. Ultimately, England could just be thankful that the visitors, 40th in the world rankings, were as inept in front of goal as them.

After a week of debate on formations and deployment within that system, Steve McClaren had maintained the 4-4-2 that has served England well. So why alter it, in such circumstances, except to satisfy those who clamour for change almost because fashion somehow demands it? There had also been some mischief about player power, which had enraged the coach, mindful that similar observations had been made about his predecessor. But whoever selected the team, at least it didn't pick itself, as one often suspected was the case under Sven Goran Eriksson.

Apart from Wayne Rooney. Has he become the new Beckham? Untouchable? Intriguingly, according to a pre-match Radio Five Live vox pop of England fans, many had been concerned by his immediate reinstatement to the starting line-up, both on the basis of current form and his potential for combustibility. McClaren's answer that "Wayne is one of those players that will explode" contained an element of unwitting ambiguity.

In the event, he didn't so much explode as fizz and whirr and light the evening Manchester sky, but with none of the impact we anticipate from him. The striker is so desperate to be all things to all men; a player who can elevate England to the necessary heights by his sheer presence. He should carry a pass labelled "Access All Areas". At present, he needs to concentrate on honing his own game to the levels which once caused him to be mentioned in the same breath as Pele. Whether Peter Crouch is the man to partner him was not truly answered here, either, such was the absence of service from midfield.

Which brings us to Michael Carrick who, when on top of his game, is capable of dissecting the visitors' rearguard with a nonchalant glance upfield, and what, on the links, would be an elegant chip on to the green.

Before the match, former England winger and fellow Geordie Chris Waddle demanded more "devil" from Carrick, suggesting that, though he was a fine passer, he had to impose himself more. Certainly, the Manchester United midfielder was no obvious replacement for Owen Hargreaves, recovering from a broken leg. If McClaren desired a like-for-like, he would surely have opted for Newcastle's Scott Parker.

Yet, didn't Carrick offer something more constructive? As another Newcastle folk hero Paul Gascoigne opined pre-match: "He's one of those guys who never gives the ball away and he's a brilliant passer."

There was only rare evidence of the latter in a first half which was as indifferent a performance as we have seen from England, even at their most lamentable during the World Cup. Carrick may indeed be worthy of a role in the team; but it is not as understudy to Hargreaves, whose absence was all too apparent. The former West Ham and Tottenham player is a man of vision; he loves to stroll through games; he simply isn't temperamentally or physically equipped to chase or cover. On one of those rare occasions, in the opening minutes, when he did attempt to get his foot in, as if to answer criticism of himself, he was pulled up for an illegal challenge.

The best one could say in a first period when his team-mates were doing their utmost to claim the title for worst mis-pass of the match, was that Carrick generally found a white shirt. But there was too little menace. It was midway through the first half before he sweetly dummied an opponent, releasing a measured ball to Gerrard on the right which nearly produced a dividend.

Otherwise, congestion in central midfield was worse than that on the M6 on the way here. England's old familiar failing, sacrificing possession cheaply, may have been costly as the visitors broke with abandon. Fortunately for McClaren, Macedonia did not possess the wit to exploit some disconcerting hesitancy in the home rearguard.

You suspect that Croatia may carry a rather more potent threat.



Star performer: Ledley King (5) 8

A late replacement for Rio Ferdinand, the Spurs centre-back was nerveless, solid and energetically hunted down trouble at source. Even in the final minute he was getting forward and crossed for Crouch, who headed wide.

Paul Robinson (1) 6

Another quiet international Saturday with little hard work to do, but made one good second-half save at his right-hand post.

Gary Neville (2) 6

Defensively caught out for speed twice and missed England's best chance, firing over after a good save by the Macedonian goalkeeper.

John Terry (6) 6

Hardly noticed in the first half, but missed a cross, allowing a Macedonian header which flew narrowly over the bar early in the second half.

Ashley Cole (3) 7

Made two decisive defensive inter-ventions, once when Robinson was beaten. Going forward, his partnership with Downing is still failing to sparkle.

Steven Gerrard (4) 6

Hit the bar with a thunderous drive, but this performance fell below his usual high standards. In the first half in particular his crossing was poor and he never offered England consistent width on the right. Booked.

Michael Carrick (7) 6

The deep-lying midfielder was England's most imaginative passer, but failed to impose himself on the match and dictate a faster tempo.

Frank Lampard (8) 6

Got into goalscoring positions again but, in keeping with his disappointing international form of late, failed to take chances in both halves.

Peter Crouch (10) 7

Poorly served in the first half, the tall striker had chances with head and feet in the second. When not well policed by the Macedonian defence, he headed a good late chance wide.

Stewart Downing (11) 5

Still to provide conclusive evidence that he is a true international performer, but produced one perfect cross on to Crouch's head. From the subsequent save came Neville's miss.

Wayne Rooney (9) 6

Back on international duty at last but his touch and timing are clearly far from 100 per cent and hence his confidence is low. Substituted.


Shaun Wright-Phillips (16) 7

On for Downing and had an immediate snap-shot. Beat three players on his best run before passing to Gerrard, who hit the bar.

Jermain Defoe (17) 5

Replaced Rooney for the final 16 minutes to little effect.

Geoff Brown