James Lawton: McClaren's brave new dawn turns into same old muddle

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Three months had passed since England declared World Cup bankruptcy in Gelsenkirchen, but then suddenly it might have been just one weary heartbeat.

England's feeble, goalless draw with Macedonia provoked many of the old alarms. It was without bite or tactical coherence or even basic passing technique. But that wasn't the worst of it. More than anything, it was Eriksson Mark 2.

Could there be more wounding criticism? Surely not after a week dominated by talk of new horizons, new formations, new life. The heaviest casualty, inevitably, was the suggestion that under their new coach, Steve McClaren, England had somehow been lifted on to a new plane of freedom and conviction.

Such optimism - based on three matches against a dismal Greece, a disinterred Andorra, and 51st-ranked Macedonia - was rendered shockingly premature, if not absurd.

The bitter truth was unshakeable at Old Trafford on Saturday: if you had spent the last three months on Mars, if you were unaware of the outcome of the World Cup and the replacement of Sven Goran Eriksson by McClaren, his long-term and ostensibly proactive assistant, and you hadn't noted the accumulation of blame, some of it subtle, some of it as blatant as the cry of a mob, heaped on the shoulders of the old boss, you could not have believed that anything had changed.

It is not an idle sneer. It is a reality that could not be escaped at any point in a performance which had to provoke an old and quite specific despair. This had nothing to do with the disposition of McClaren's troops. It wasn't about whether they played 3-5-2, 4-4-2, 4-5-1, or which position Steven Gerrard took up, or how many times McClaren slapped Wayne Rooney on the back and told him to enjoy himself. It concerned England's total failure to give the impression that they were any closer to being a team. Here the comparison with Eriksson could not be avoided.

England operated in little islands of individual and futile endeavour. Rerun the film and note the average distance between English players and those of Macedonia. The men from the Balkans, who would never claim parity with the superstars of the Premiership, hunted in small, coherent packs. They passed the ball with certainty. They made little triangles that, at times, completely undermined the English defence and had they enjoyed a little more pace, a little more strength, we might just have been witnessing the most shocking defeat on home soil since the one imposed by the Hungarians of Ferenc Puskas, who also arrived as obscure impostors from somewhere the wrong side of the Danube 50-odd years ago.

On that distant day the English right-back learnt lessons he would never forget. His name was Sir Alf Ramsey and we all know the fruits of his hard-earned knowledge. Is it too much to hope that the lessons inflicted by modest Macedonia might just be picked up at this late hour? The evidence is not encouraging. Before the game Rio Ferdinand was talking about the need for a bolder approach. England had to throw away caution. No they didn't. They had to discard a terrible imprecision - a sloppiness of execution when on the ball that defied their reputations and their rewards.

Maybe, in the end, we have to consider the possibility that we are discussing something deep in the culture of English football, some unshakeable legacy of years of turning schoolboy footballers into mini-professionals obliged to produce results for their coaches when instead they should be achieving a more relaxed understanding of how to relate to their team-mates and the rhythms of the game. No doubt this is something that will have to wait for a more enlightened age. In the mean time, the relevant question is what we might reasonably expect from Eriksson's successor.

It is certainly not a stream of unbridled optimism based on the most slender of foundations. It has to be evidence that indeed he can do more than encourage the denouncing of the Eriksson regime without putting something adequate in its place.

Those of us who argued against his appointment did so on the basis that not only had he failed to produce an outstanding body of work as a club manager but it was also impossible to detach him from the failures of the Eriksson regime. One of the worst criticisms of Eriksson was that he was relentlessly passive. So who shaped the working ethos of the team? At Old Trafford on Saturday there had to a terrible suspicion that it might just have indeed been the man who effectively appeared to run every coaching session - Steve McClaren.

Of course, these are early days - of course, swift redemption might just come against Croatia in Zagreb this week. But then on what evidence would you base such a sunny forecast? Not on anything that was seen on Saturday, certainly - and very little that was visible in Skopje a few weeks ago when, in a 1-0 win that was ultimately fortunate, England's midfield was similarly laboured.

The burden on McClaren is that he must change the dynamic of the team, create a dawning sense that at some point in the future they might just display the unity and the purpose that have been elusive for so long. This will not come about with some magical tactical flourish. It will only happen when Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, formidable operators for Liverpool and Chelsea in their specifically aggressive roles, but still utterly moribund when it comes to shaping an international game, are made to bring the best out of not only themselves but their team-mates. At the moment they are failing in both requirements.

Genuine improvement will not come from the grandstanding of a Gerrard or a Gary Neville. It can occur only when throughout the team there is a sense there is no big answer, no great breakthrough, but only the challenge of getting 100 small things so right that the overall result is inevitably positive.

How, for example, do we believe Martin O'Neill, a crassly undervalued contender for the England job, has achieved such a remarkable transformation at Aston Villa in the same time that McClaren has been in charge of England? Did O'Neill bring a great drum to bang at Villa Park? Did he bombard his players and his public with a stream of good and inspirational tidings? Did he unveil some breathtaking changes in tactics?

No, he made the few signings he could, and spent every other minute of his time working on the challenge of making a team. He did it with the weight of applied detail, in set pieces and in the way his new players built a rhythm into their work.

You might say that McClaren and O'Neill are on different stages and face separate challenges, and you might say also that it is unfair at this point to make such a direct comparison. But then that begs the question of how you measure the work of a coach. In the end, it is surely simple enough. You look for its effect. You look for smartness, a bright understanding of what is needed.

At Old Trafford you looked in vain. You looked for the future but all you could see was the past.

Unlucky for some: Thirteen barren games and two fruitless years for England's No 9

Wayne Rooney scored the first of his two goals in England's 4-2 victory over Croatia at Euro 2004. Unfortunately for Rooney, and England, he has not scored since ... in 13 competitive internationals, including Saturday's frustrating goalless draw

* PORTUGAL 2 ENGLAND 2 (aet, Portugal won 6-5 on pens) (24 June 04, Euro 2004, quarter-final) England goals Owen, Lampard

* ENGLAND 2 WALES 0 (9 Oct 04, World Cup qualifier) Goals Lampard, Beckham

* AZERBAIJAN 0 ENGLAND 1 (13 Oct 04, WCQ) Goal Owen

* ENGLAND 4 N IRELAND 0 (26 March 05, WCQ) Goals J Cole, Owen, Baird (og), Lampard

* ENGLAND 2 AZERBAIJAN 0 (30 March 05, WCQ) Goals Gerrard, Beckham

* WALES 0 ENGLAND 1 (3 Sept 05, WCQ) Goal J Cole

* N IRELAND 1 ENGLAND 0 (7 Sept 05, WCQ)

* ENGLAND 2 POLAND 1 (12 Oct 05, WCQ) Goals Owen, Lampard

* ENGLAND 2 TRINIDAD & TOBAGO 0 (15 June 06, WC Finals) Goals Crouch, Gerrard

* SWEDEN 2 ENGLAND 2 (20 June 06, WC Finals) Goals J Cole, Gerrard

* ENGLAND 1 ECUADOR 0 (25 June 06, WC Finals) Goal Beckham

* ENGLAND 0 PORTUGAL 0 (aet, Portugal won 3-1 on pens) (1 July 06, WC quarter-final)