The Nick Townsend Column: McClaren and Venables: even the team behind the team isn't working

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The Independent Football

"A good scare is worth more to a man than good advice," the American author Edgar Watson Howe once opined. As Steve McClaren disappeared into the depths of the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb, that Colgate-smile mask replaced by the shocked visage of a man for whom Halloween had come early, it was pertinent to ponder whether he will now respond to his own better instincts rather than those of the coterie that surrounds him. At least now he knew, as he applauded the England supporters who were verbally assaulting his players, that the initial trio of victories had just been a cruel trick and treat.

Many of us believed that post-Eriksson there should be a new beginning; an opportunity to sever all ties with the old regime. But it was not to be. In their judgement, the Football Association's chief executive, Brian Barwick, and his kingmakers decided on continuity, which may have had some merits if McClaren had adopted Sven Goran Eriksson's template and improved on it. At least under the Swede, England could be relatively confident of qualification.

But McClaren decided, or was counselled, to emphasise that this is a new age, and that he is Macca the Enlightened, not Sven the Immovable. First David Beckham was crudely jettisoned. This column has long questioned the Real Madrid man's right to the captaincy and his declining influence, but the first rule of football management, and politics, is to make a sacking appear as though you had no alternative, and allow yourself an escape route. The discarding of Beckham appeared purely an attempt to make an impact.

Meanwhile the back room was becoming home to an assembly of experts. When it's all going swimmingly, then the enlistment of a sports psychologist, PR guru (although Max Clifford has now baled out of the stricken craft, for which McClaren will probably be grateful), media adviser and, most significantly, a former England coach can appear reasonably sound judgement. When his men flounder, out of their depth, in a largely alien system thrust open them, as they did on Wednesday, they all appear as unnecessary as that trip to Seattle to view American Football, which has now been wisely postponed.

Which brings us to the curious matter of Terry Venables' contribution. At the game he was photographed making notes. Just how many sheets did he require after this débâcle which begged so many questions? Such as: "Why did I accept this job?" And: "Why did we depart from 4-4-2, or a variation of it?" It leaves us to query to what extent this seismic shift from the norm was actually done at his bidding. We won't have any idea until his column appears in a Sunday red-top, an exclusive relationship the FA appearblithely to accept.

Though McClaren attempts to downplay his role, Venables doesn't easily accept the part of sidekick. He needs to control, to have influence over affairs. He is a messianic figure or he is nothing. Just remember what happened at Middlesborough in 2001, when he was summoned initially by Bryan Robson when his team were bottom of the League, to provide someone who "just might give us a few new ideas and perk us up". By the end, as Robson recalls, "we worked together and I ran things as usual on the days he was away, but he had the final word on team selection". Rather more than "perking things up".

Suggestions that Venables is primed to succeed McClaren should the Yorkshireman lose his job, as Robson did his Boro post, are exceedingly premature. Those responsible for his appointment would be unable to withstand the ridicule. Barwick's head would be next, you can be virtually certain of that.

Yet the fact is that messiahs don't sit comfortably on the touchline. Venables appeared distinctly ill at ease; he won't like the idea at all of being damned by association with McClaren or, worse, England's malaise being attributed, in part, to his own recommendation of a 3-5-2 strategy. If that was the case.

Certainly Venables had a hankering for the wing-back system, together with his famed Christmas trees. But he utilised it after two years' experimentation, during which there were no competitive internationals, and principally as an attacking policy. His 1996 squad were also capable of readily metamorphosing into a 4-4-2. On Wednesday, the manner of the team's set-up was ripe for Croatia to exploit.

The suspicion is that there is too much emphasis on rigid systems. Croatia's coach, Slaven Bilic, a multilingual law graduate, may not be quite as smart as he believes, but the proposition he growled - "the system is dying" - when asked about England's change of formation after his team's victory said it all. Yes, there must be a structure, but the best, most intuitive side can operate with a flexibility within that; and modify it, as necessary.

The argument goes that a radical change was somehow needed because England did not progress beyond the quarter-finals in a major competition under Eriksson. Yet that was more for want of talent than how they were organised. This 3-5-2 made decent players look fallible. John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Jamie Carragher looked as comfortable in a back three as Paul McCartney in an abattoir.

The wing-backs, Gary Neville and Ashley Cole, though willing, appeared equally ill at ease with their new territory, and as for the midfield, you can imagine Bilic's response when he realised his team would be confronted by Lampard, Carrick and Parker.

It was reminiscent of that old American Express ad punchline: "That'll do nicely". You don't get too much attacking dynamism among that bunch, do you? That description only really applied to Wayne Rooney, who played his heart out despite his stuttering form before taking Terry's pre-match Churchillian speech to heart by offering his own V-sign to a so-called supporter after the game.

Ideally, Rooney should be deployed behind a striker who oozes pace and craft in a 4-4-1-1 system. That final "1" should not be Peter Crouch; not unless Beckham is present to wing cross after cross to him, and that scarcely seems likely. But who is that striker? Who is that lone ranger? Andy Johnson is a possibility; so is Dean Ashton when he returns from injury. The successful Under-21s yield optimism, too, in Theo Walcott, who the previous night had breezed through the admittedly tiring German back line for his two goals. Why did no one think of taking him to the World Cup?

To be serious, the Arsenal youngster is one of the few who could emerge in time, possessing exceptional virtues that can advance England's cause.

Harnessing real quality must be McClaren's preoccupation. Again, attempting to be everything that Eriksson was not, the England coach was in tub-thumping mood beforehand, enthusing about "character, pride and attitude". But that should come as part of the package in any England player, shouldn't it? The principal components should be talent, technical ability and vision. There was precious little of it on display in Zagreb. Any that existed became lost in a fog of incomprehension. McClaren has had his scare. Will he learn from it?