James Lawton: Midfield muddle poses clear and present danger for McClaren

Wednesday's attacking burdens were carried by Phil Neville
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The Independent Online

Coaches change, new dawns are proclaimed, but when the sun came up over the old mosque in Skopje yesterday it illuminated the most obdurate problem of English international football. It is that there is no wit in midfield, no willingness, and perhaps no ability, to get on the ball and dominate a game. That went out of the team three coaches ago, when Glenn Hoddle finally bowed to the reality that Paul Gascoigne had become a self-destructing shell of the creative midfielder who had promised, with tragic brevity, to install a dazzling epoch of the national game.

With his poignant regrets, Gazza took the last evidence that England could still produce midfielders of the vision and class and energy of Johnny Haynes and Sir Bobby Charlton and Alan Ball.

Here this week a valuable but uninspiring victory over the nation ranked 67th in the world, most of whose key players operate in the lower reaches of the Bundesliga, was heavy with the truth that while the new coach Steve McClaren can cite a thousand statistics from his ProZone file he is powerless to dispute that the English midfield - that area where the best teams shape the game - remains a wasteland.

Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, who would command huge fees in the transfer market, are still at the heart of the problem.

The barrenness of their performances here - which in Lampard's case brought a humiliating substitution as the Macedonians took over the match and pushed for a late equaliser which would have been quite deserved - was the most serious question mark against the ability of McClaren and his hugely respected guru Terry Venables to make any significant advance on the frustrating years of Sven Goran Eriksson.

Where is the solution? Short term it might be to persuade the ageing Paul Scholes to return to international football. The Manchester United player remains, by some margin, the most instinctively penetrative of English midfielders.

Long-term salvation might just come with an unlikely change in the priorities of English coaching, which currently are geared to hard-running efficiency, an emphasis on percentage football that appears to kill at birth the kind of risk-taking instincts which in an earlier generation ensured that every team in the old first division had at least two players whose job was to get on the ball and make things happen.

On Wednesday night one of the greatest offensive burdens was carried by the right-back Phil Neville. Along the right he took all the throw-ins, long and optimistically in almost every case. Gerrard and Lampard? As players willing to take initiatives, to set a progressive pattern, their fingers stayed off the trigger.

In the sharpest of contrasts, Macedonia's gifted playmaker, Goran Pandev of Lazio, was assisted by the strong-running Velice Sumulikoski in attempting to break open the England defence with flurries of one-two passing sequences and sharp and imaginative running. But for a goal-line clearance of Ashley Cole, so reminiscent of his desperate intervention that kept England in the game with Ecuador in the World Cup, this classic policy might easily have delivered at least a draw.

The lesson was probably lost in an English football culture which celebrates the power and the wealth of the Premiership but fails to note that in recent years it has failed to produce a single outstanding home-grown creative talent. Michael Carrick is an accomplished passer of the ball, but his new club Manchester United seem destined for disappointment if they expect him to pick up the baton left by Roy Keane, a supreme example of a midfielder capable of reading opposition weakness.

Where indeed are the midfielders who even vaguely suggest that they can once day aspire to the influence once exerted by Keane and his Arsenal counterpart, Patrick Vieira? Both of them are Spanish. Xabi Alonso at Liverpool is expected to pick apart a team with his creative eye and his passing technique. Much the same is expected at Arsenal of Alonso's young compatriot, Cesc Fabregas.

This is the reality that means any legitimate criticism of McClaren, just as in the cases of his predecessors Hoddle, Kevin Keegan and Eriksson, has to be coloured to some extent by an awareness that midfield options continue to be desperately limited.

Since Gascoigne the only midfielder to offer a hint of sustained creativity was Jamie Redknapp before he was ravaged by injury; yet Redknapp insists that Gerrard should play in central midfield because he is one of the best in the world, if not the best.

This is surely the myth at the heart of an English malaise which shows little sign now of ending at the highest level. The victory over Macedonia warranted marks for resilience and defensive soundness, but if you took away the heart - and the opportunism - of Peter Crouch the threat to Macedonia's defence was much less than clinical.

It largely featured Gerrard and Lampard attempting to do what they are capable of achieving at their best: powerful bursts on goal, evidence that they have the strength and the ambition to score vital goals. On Wednesday such moves met only with frustration, a fact which meant that for long passages of the game England were required to operate without the ball. After Crouch scored his breakthrough goal, England should have been able to take command, snuff out the embers of the Macedonian fire and pocket the points as routinely as you put change in your pocket.

But it was never like that. When Macedonia brought on the veteran Artim Sakiri, the man who caused such embarrassment to England on the way to the last European Championship, he almost immediately skipped down the left and flashed a shot just wide. Local wisdom is that Sakiri is just about at the end of his playing days and good only for 15 minutes of journeying down memory lane. Maybe so, but he was still able to remind England of the deficiency which remains at the heart of so much failed ambition.

England's biggest failure was one of control. It is a problem so fundamental that it can only be resolved by a major change in the philosophy of how the nation's most talented young players are brought up. Meanwhile, we can only yearn for the fleeting promises of a Paul Gascoigne.

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