James Lawton: England must sweep aside the vanities to grasp a simple truth

Tactical lunges, if we doubted it before this week, are never the answer
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The Independent Football

In the alphabet of England's decline into chaos, Z for Zagreb is appropriately the last letter. It is also the last word in failed leadership, squandered, if overstated, talent, and a total misunderstanding of the nature of the challenge facing a team for whom underachievement has become not a threat but an unshakeable habit.

But how can the cycle be broken? "Sack McClaren and bring back Beckham," cried outraged fans, whose humour cannot have been improved by a report that some of them had been given the finger by Wayne Rooney. You had to pity those fans who had travelled across Europe only for more evidence that they support not a football unit but fragments of preposterous and utterly unprogrammed ego. The fans wanted McClaren's head and the return of an ex-captain who just a few months ago wept perhaps the most self-indulgent tears in the history of the game. They wanted a scalp they couldn't have - and an illusion.

The basic problems were written in the Croatian sky. McClaren should not have been appointed to his four-year, £10m contract. He was hopelessly compromised by both his high-profile years with the inept Sven Goran Eriksson and a body of work so erratic that his job at Middlesbrough was deeply imperilled. But the move was made against all intelligent analysis and now the Football Association has plenty of time to count the cost to both its reputation for judgement and its alarmingly reduced finances.

Installing Terry Venables as McClaren's overshadowing assistant was also a mistake. It offended the basic principle that a successful manager has to be seen to be his own man. In Zagreb there was no little doubt that Venables had made a strong case for the misadventure of the 3-5-2 system despite McClaren's insistence that he was the sole author of the disaster.

So what should be done, what can be done? The first question is easier than the second. It can be answered with the most basic of common sense, the classic lessons bestowed by those who have built teams on character and performance and not some vain and jiggling pursuit of a Big Solution. There is no masterplan in the sky, no universal panacea.

Tactical lunges, if we ever doubted it before this week's desperate shambles, are never the answer. They distort the nature of the crisis. Against Macedonia last week England's problem was not bad tactics but appalling performance and what happened in Zagreb on Wednesday night only underlined the point.

Advocates of such as Guus Hiddink and Martin O'Neill maybe need to explain themselves at this critical point; put some flesh on all those theories about what makes a consistently winning coach. So what would the likes of Hiddink and O'Neill do to separate themselves from the years of Eriksson and McClaren? They would, right up to the point where they deemed the task impossible, try to explain to Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard some of the basic requirements of midfield play on the international stage. They would be teachers. An outrageous proposition to apply to the games of two vastly rewarded and acclaimed operators in the Premiership? Hardly, if the evidence accumulates from match to match - and in the past two games we have seen some of the most desperate examples - that they are incapable of inflicting themselves against opposition which in the great scheme of international football could not be rated higher than mediocre. We are not talking here about the eruptions of power that can come from Gerrard at any time. No, the objective is control, the shaping of the game, the application of pressure which creates the overwhelming sense that this is a team on the march - a team going somewhere.

It is inconceivable that a Hiddink or an O'Neill, men educated in the schools of Rinus Michels and Brian Clough, would have reacted to the Macedonian disaster with a completely new set of ill-prepared tactics. Their priorities would have been quite different. They would have used the Macedonian performance as a corpse to be dissected. They would talk about individual responsibilities in the need for a team effort. They would have stressed the need to work on such basics as reducing the distance between themselves as they sought to dominate a game.

John Giles, who became one of the most influential midfielders in the game after moving from the care of Sir Matt Busby to Don Revie at Leeds, was no less bemused than Alan Hansen, a key factor in the European Cup-winning cohesion of a great Liverpool team, at this week's journey down a tactically blind alley.

"I played for a decade with a Leeds team that had great strength and talent in every area, including the bench. We played a basic system and we worked on it every day. Even after our greatest results, we never believed, and were never encouraged to believe, that we had got everything right. You never do in football. There is always something that can be improved, something that needs to be attended to. It is dismaying to watch England because they go from game to game making the same mistakes, but then how can you expect to get anything right if you move from such a performance against Macedonia, when so many basic things were askew, and try to produce a better performance with an entirely different system?

"It makes no sense. It looks to me like so many basics have been forgotten. A big part of the problem is that so much of modern coaching is not really about the core of what makes a successful football team.

"I've no doubt somebody like McClaren would outshine a Shankly or a Revie or a Stein if those great managers came back to join in a modern coaching session. I'm not decrying modern coaching for its ability to provide lively sessions, to engage the interests of the players. But so often it does not address a core problem like the underachievement of a Gerrard or a Lampard. That demands special attention, that needs a McClaren to say to them, 'Look, this isn't working ... you're not taking up the right positions, you don't really seem to understand what you are trying to do'."

These are not theories designed to make dramatic headlines. They do not contain the eye-catching properties of "Sack McClaren" or "Bring Back Beckham", but maybe they do go to the heart of the malaise.

They explain, at least partly, why some are so enthusiastic about a Hiddink or an O'Neill. It is because these are men who have not forgotten the essential dynamic of a successful team. They are not faddists or tactical glory boys. They examine their resources, strengthen them if they can, and then they make a fist of it. They do not tolerate the vanities of overpaid players who believe it is enough to claim their international shirts, run out on the field and then knock off their autobiographies.

Zagreb inevitably initiates another great inquest, another search for talent that might just explode into the jaded ranks of the England team. But be sure, most of it isn't worth the breath required to carry the indignation.

Of all the truths about football one of the hardiest is that it doesn't conceal a thousand mysteries. Indeed, it is a simple game but making it so can be complicated. This is especially so when common sense has been cast aside. In Zagreb this week finding that old diamond was beyond the power of any search party.

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Joe Cole

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Likely return: tomorrow

Andrew Johnson

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Likely return: tomorrow

Ledley King

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Likely return: within a week

Ashley Cole

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Likely return: next week

Phil Neville

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Aaron Lennon

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Owen Hargreaves

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Dean Ashton

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Michael Owen

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The £1 billion blunder: Potential cost of failure

If England fail to qualify for the 2008 European Championship finals, the economy could miss out on up to £1bn of extra spending.

The Centre for Economics and Business Research predicted before the World Cup that consumers and advertisers would spend up to £1.25bn extra during the competition, which is likely to be repeated if England qualify for Euro 2008.

The Football Association could also face reduced replica shirt and other merchandise sales, though television rights and sponsorship revenue would be largely unaffected. The biggest problem would be the damage done to the England team's global "brand image".