Winning formation for new England

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The Independent Online

The traditional 4-4-2 formation of the English football yeomen has served Gary Neville well. Within it he has won Premiership, FA Cup, European Cup and World Club Championship medals. Yet, as England departed from Turin yesterday, savouring the weird experience of an encouraging defeat, the Manchester United right-back put his weight behind a different philosophy.

The traditional 4-4-2 formation of the English football yeomen has served Gary Neville well. Within it he has won Premiership, FA Cup, European Cup and World Club Championship medals. Yet, as England departed from Turin yesterday, savouring the weird experience of an encouraging defeat, the Manchester United right-back put his weight behind a different philosophy.

"For the last 18 months there has been a lot of nonsense talked about England players not being able to pass the ball," he said. "We out-passed Italy here and that was down to playing a 3-5-2 system.

"I play at a club where 4-4-2 works and I'll never condemn it, but England don't have the players to play 4-4-2. We don't have the wide players to make it work. You need a Ryan Giggs as well as a David Beckham and you also need special midfield players like Roy Keane."

Neville, who had looked born to his position on the right of a defensive back three, added: "The system made a difference. There were a lot more options on the ball. 3-5-2 definitely suits us. We played it really well."

Neville was not alone. Beckham, captain for the night, said he felt "more comfortable and "more in control of the game" while most observers thought it offered England balance in defence and options in attack. After the pedestrian and predictable displays of the European Championship, it was like watching a different team.

Which, in many ways, it was. Only Neville and Beckham, of the 16 players who featured in the Stadio delle Alpi, started a single match in the summer. Emile Heskey, Nicky Barmby and Gareth Southgate only made fleeting substitute appearances, few of the others were even in the 22.

All of which gave Sven Goran Eriksson plenty to mull over as he caught a private plane back to Rome with his Lazio players. The new coach, whose start date is still to be determined, has shown a preference for 4-4-2. As Beckham said: "Perhaps it is the way ahead. That will be down to the new manager."

So might the question of which veterans are recalled. Eriksson saw at first hand the enduring quality of Tony Adams, Martin Keown and David Seaman when Arsenal headed Lazio in the Champions' League this autumn. However, Adams and Seaman are showing signs of the inevitable wear-and-tear while Keown's distributive deficiencies are well known.

In addition, if the future of England's defensive shape revolves around Rio Ferdinand, which Wednesday night's display suggested it should, it could be difficult to play Adams alongside him. Not only is he happier in a back four, his presence could inhibit Ferdinand. One of the reasons Peter Taylor's young men played so well was that the very absence of the old heads forced them to take responsibility. It undoubtedly helped Ferdinand maintain his infamous concentration levels.

"I think Rio is a better defender than people give him credit for," Taylor said. "Maybe he did two or things wrong but he won some good headers and read situations well. I love a passing defender and Rio showed he is that. If teams don't play with control from the back they are in danger of losing the ball. The ideal situation is having someone who can do both, pass and defend. I thought Rio did both things and can be very, very pleased with his performance."

Taylor was delighted with Beckham and Heskey. "Emile played against three very experienced defenders and gave them a bit of a torrid time," he said.

Ferdinand added: "Emile was a rude awakening for Alessandro Nesta. He is one of the best defenders in the world but I don't think he has come up against anyone like Emile. He really scares players in Europe with his pace and power. He has quick feet, pace and strength. He showed again he can create things on his own."

Though Heskey did not score he led the line well enough to keep his place, should England have the wisdom to retain split strikers, even when Owen is fit. His attacking cohort should again be Barmby, who was excellent. "He showed his intelligence," Taylor said.

Who leads England in their next match, a friendly with Spain at Villa Park in February, remains unclear. The Football Association still hopes to have Eriksson in place, either permanently or on loan from Lazio, but Taylor would be happy to continue. With Manchester United embroiled by then in the second stage of the Champions' League he could be assisted for that game by Alan Curbishley, the Charlton manager, rather than Steve McClaren, the United coach. Charlton said yesterday they would have no objection to the FA approaching them with a view to involving Curbishley in the England set-up.

"It's quite a distance to the Spain game," Taylor said. "All I am thinking about is Middlesbrough away [Leicester's match tomorrow]," he said. But he added: "If it is not going to affect Leicester and [the chairman] John Elsom is happy then the FA know I would do the same again. I have had a thoroughly enjoyable three days.

"I do not think it is an impossible job. It is a very hard job because the competition all over the world is very difficult. I have always said we have good players. The Spain game is only a month before the next World Cup qualifier so I would have to think about whether to play all the youngsters again. But I was delighted with them."

The evidence of the last week suggests Taylor would, and should, play the bulk of his tiros, and do so in a 3-5-1-1 formation. England now waits to find out if Eriksson concurs.

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