The Nick Townsend Column: Mac the spinmeister puts a gloss on the night Hiddink & Co stole a march

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The Independent Online

Back in late August, after Steve McClaren's Flying Circus had undertaken a tour of the clubs to garner information about England players, the new head coach proclaimed that he was going to build England the Jose way. He referred to Chelsea's work ethic and team spirit. On Wednesday night there was a semblance of evidence, albeit against opposition best described as Oranje Lite, that his players had not been broken upon the wheel of brutal realities just under six weeks ago in Zagreb.

But to suggest any more than that was fanciful. "The key thing was bouncing back and having the character to do that and prove a point... we've taken a step forward tonight and we've got to take advantage of that," McClaren emphasised afterwards as he placed more gloss on events at Amsterdam's ArenA than the toothy host of a makeover show.

Whether it was at the command of spinmeisters, or through his own volition, you could almost hear the instructions pounding through his head - "Accentuate the positives, Steve" - as he contemplated England, McClaren's England, who are without a victory in three games, in which they have scored one goal. Just as disconcertingly, for all that previous run of shut-outs by Paul Robinson and the durability of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, his rearguard retain the capacity for self-destruction we witnessed against Sweden in the World Cup.

Those statistics make more than just perturbing reading; they contributed to a night during which England descended to third place behind Croatia and Guus Hiddink's ominously poised Russia. Beneath them in Group E, on the same points, are Israel. Somewhere there should be Siberia. Not opponents; just a reminder of the kind of winter McClaren will experience.

Mr Perm-a-plan would have us believe that Wednesday's 1-1 draw was testimony to the fact that England are moving forward under his stewardship. That they so nearly achieved victory should not blind anyone to what they actually did achieve.

This was not that distant from being England's strongest side. In McClaren's optimum starting XI, Gary Neville would return for the raw but promising teenager Micah Richards; Michael Carrick, whose indifferent passing is still a cause for concern, would give way to Owen Hargreaves; while on the flank, Aaron Lennon would replace Andy Johnson.

In contrast, Marco van Basten's side, who treated it as an educational exercise, were missing Nigel de Jong, Wesley Sneijder, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robin van Persie. As we know, Holland come issued with a health warning: be wary about basing any opinion on a match with them. You never know which Holland will turn up; the side who marmalised Ireland in Dublin or the one who stumbled to a 1-0 victory over Luxembourg.

In truth, it was an opportunity wasted by England as McClaren curiously adopted Mourinho's 4-3-3 preference, which may be considered to be taking admiration for the Portuguese's methods too far. Whether the plan was to neutralise Van Basten's strategy, or came from a genuine belief that a three-pronged assault may yield more profit than the default 4-4-2, it was the latest solution from our flexible friends, Mac & Tel, England's answer to Ant & Dec... even if the gameplan of McClaren and Venables left Johnson mentally screaming from his role out wide: "I'm a centre-forward; get me out of here!"

Mourinho's 4-3-3 has Didier Drogba at its apex. McClaren's had Wayne Rooney, notionally. While the Manchester United man can adapt chameleon-like to any footballing environment, it is arguable indeed whether Wednesday night's deployment exploited his rare capabilities. It would surely have been more instructive to view him in a 4-4-1-1, just behind Johnson.

"I thought the shape worked well, and we looked comfortable in it," was McClaren's analysis. Really? While Joe Cole revelled in his freedom, Johnson never had a chance to flourish on the opposite flank, although one must question whether the Everton striker possesses the genuine class and presence required.

But if that is so, where do England look for that elusive forward? Not at Michael Owen, despite optimistic reports following surgery in the US. Dean Ashton? Along with the midfield dilemma of where to station Steven Gerrard, McClaren has much to ponder. Not least, whether he is satisfied with his own performance at a time when one can only imagine he has been poorly advised on his dealings with the media.

A legal wrangle over who wrote A Whiter Shade Of Pale was being heard in the High Court last week. In football's court, McClaren has steadfastly refused to offer mitigating evidence for his England being beyond the pale in Zagreb. It required an answer. England reconvene against Israel in March for their next competitive game. Until then, the jury of public opinion is still out.

Boycott right to spell out burnout peril

Playing for the Ashes: on the remaining playing fields of England that will be the fantasy of many a schoolboy who will be unable to comprehend the spectacle of Marcus Trescothick returning to his Taunton home following what is described as a "stress-related illness". Amateur psychiatrists among former players and the media have offered various diagnoses. One somehow imagined Geoff Boycott would hail from the "for heaven's sake, pull yourself together" school of analysts. Not so.

He empathises with Tres-cothick, talks of the three-year hiatus in his own Test career, and says "the burden of playing non-stop cricket is taking its toll". One suspects there is more to Trescothick's issues than that. Yet Boycott does raise an important issue about burnout. He recalls that he played 36 one-day inter-nationals throughout his career. Inzamam-ul-Haq has played more than 360 one-dayers. "Madness," says the Yorkshireman. It is.

Becks still on catwalk out of the Bernabeu

David Beckham has always been something of a cross-dresser, in terms of his first calling as a footballer and and his celebrity alter ego. But now the transition is surely complete, judging from photos taken at Rome's Ciampino Airport. In his chic cardie, the Real Madrid player could have been posing for Vogue as he and wife Victoria were captured en route to Tom Cruise's wedding. With coach Fabio Capello insisting he should remain in Madrid to receive treatment for a knee injury, it is another step on the catwalk out of the Bernabeu. But what is the future for a player who looks unlikely to return to the Premiership? In the old days, many retired players ran a pub. Perhaps there's a role for them both on TV's EastEnders. The missus fancies being a lady. How about landlady... of the Queen Vic?

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