James Lawton: Midfield malaise a grim reminder of McClaren's links to Eriksson era

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The Independent Football

Much has been made of the long and ruinously golden handshake enjoyed by Sven Goran Eriksson but at what point will English football's Doomsday accountancy add the cost of appointing his right-hand man Steve McClaren? That day may be pushed back if England somehow manage to glean three points from their vital European Championship qualifier in Tel Aviv next month but on the evidence of his first seven games it would surely be a case of judgement postponed rather than concluded.

Inevitably there were bitter protests from the terraces at the end of Wednesday's disturbingly clueless defeat - at the hands of a Spanish team whose veteran manager Luis Aragones has several times recently offered his resignation as a matter of conscience - and at the heart of the outrage was surely another question.

This one asked if someone who had decamped to a desert island after England's abject surrender in last summer's World Cup, only to return for the game at Old Trafford, could be persuaded that a new head coach had been appointed? Did England show a touch more wit or cohesion? Was there any sense of a growing understanding - a hint of unity? Did the midfield look anything other than the same collection of befuddled individuals who laboured to make an opening against such international make-weights as Trinidad & Tobago, Paraguay and Ecuador? They did not.

McClaren talked of missing personnel but the two men who represent England's greatest failure of potential, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, were once again on the field to illustrate the problem that the new regime has so signally failed to tackle.

The England midfield didn't work under Eriksson because of his absurd faith in the plainly dwindling powers of David Beckham, a folly that drove away the one player with the talent and the instinct to operate as a true world-class playmaker, Paul Scholes. It does not work under McClaren because Gerrard and Lampard, titans for their clubs, continue to operate for England as separate planets in a chaotic universe.

Why is it their influence becomes so negligible on the international field? It is because the chance to exploit the talent that often shines so brightly in club football, that ability to get on the end of things with power and decision, is taken away from them because of their own tactical limitations. There cannot be an end if there is no beginning.

Gerrard escaped most of the flak on Wednesday because of a busy start and, most notably, a sweeping pass to Peter Crouch that was squandered. But the reality was that the pass came from a position in which the Spanish midfielders like Xavi, and then later Cesc Fabregas, would almost certainly not have been occupying. Why? Because they move closely with their team-mates, they fashion passing sequences in small areas that provide the foundation for a decisive strike.

Gerrard was on his own when he got the ball which he passed on to Crouch. It was not the result of a measured build-up; it came from the breakdown of a Spanish attack. McClaren talked of building blocks, but the trouble, once more, was that if this was Legoland the parts still did not fit.

What England still cannot do is accumulate the controlled possession that gives scope for true creativity. When Lampard performs so strikingly for Chelsea he is benefiting not only from his own power and striking ability but also the hard presence and natural midfield savvy of Claude Makelele and Michael Essien. When Gerrard catches the eye so spectacularly at Anfield it is not because of a natural creative instinct but the explosive quality that is often exploited by Xabi Alonso, a classic midfielder who at his best passes with the finest touch and a natural eye for available space.

The futility of the Eriksson years was grimly re- enacted at Old Trafford. Joey Barton is not a Gerrard or a Lampard, not in the sum of his talent, but he is a scrapper who understands the dynamics of playing midfield. He takes up good positions, he is involved in the game, and, who knows, he might just be the grain of sand in the oyster shell that makes the pearl. But then how would we know from his 11 minutes of action this week?

Barton replaced a Lampard who had been in the futile mode that was such a crushing disappointment in the World Cup. If McClaren was truly looking for some new chemistry in midfield, something to improve on the terrible impasse reached by England in the home draw with Macedonia and the defeat in Croatia, he would have given the spiky Barton a chance to make an impact. But 11 minutes? This was not a building block. It was a straw in the wind.

We are told Gerrard played just 45 minutes out of deference to his Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez. A deal had been made. Some deal. The objective on Wednesday was serious preparation for the hugely important game against Israel. But it didn't happen. Gerrard was captain for a half and then it was pass the armband. This didn't serve anyone, not Gerrard, not England, and certainly not the idea that there is much point in sucking up to club managers in the hope that they will ever give you anything more than is deemed politically acceptable.

No doubt it is too soon to expect the FA to re-consider their appointment of McClaren. England should beat Israel, they should muster enough force and enough ability, but then qualification for the European Championships, from one of the softest groups, should be among the least of the new coach's ambitions. His real challenge is to re-make a team on which, unless he was merely arranging the training cones, he had a key influence on for three major tournaments. This was the gnawing fact that was progressively more difficult to ignore as England floundered against Spain, who have just one qualifying win, against Liechtenstein.

The unavoidable truth is that McClaren is failing the challenge. England are not moving on. They are slipping back. When Eriksson left, England needed a new hand, a new perspective - and, not least, someone who knew how to organise a midfield. It is where teams are made or, in England's case, where they fall apart.

McClaren stalls on the grid: Worst ever start by an England manager

Steve McClaren's start is the worst ever by an England manager. The 1-0 defeat to Spain was his second defeat in seven games. Only Sir Alf Ramsey and Kevin Keegan also suffered more than one defeat in their opening seven matches. If worked out on a three points for a win, one for a draw basis, McClaren's mentor Sven Goran Eriksson comes out on top, winning six of his first seven, including the 5-1 win over Germany in Munich. Glenn Hoddle also won six out of seven.

Source: EnglandFootballonline

England managers records in first seven games


Sven Goran Eriksson 7 /6 /0 /1 /19 /5 /18

Glenn Hoddle 7/6/0/1/13/3/18

Graham Taylor 7/5/2/0/11/3/17

Walter Winterbottom 7/5/1/1/23/6/16

Don Revie 7/4/3/0/13/2/15

Terry Venables 7/4/3/0/10/1/15

Bobby Robson 7/4/2/1/19/5/14

Ron Greenwood 7/4/2/1/10/4/14

Sir Alf Ramsey 7/4/1/2/22/12/13

Kevin Keegan 7/4/1/2/13/4/13

Joe Mercer 7/3/3/1/9/7/12

Steve McClaren 7/3/2/2/11/4/11