McManaman a dangerous floater

Ian Ridley says Glenn Hoddle has attractive alternatives to the Gascoigne dilemma

There was a time when it would have been the first question; now it was the last. How is Paul Gascoigne? Glenn Hoddle was asked finally.

Gazza was the issue for the coach before England's last World Cup qualifying match in Georgia three months ago. Reports of alleged wife-beating, the eating and drinking habits and his consent to counselling spread ever further from the sports pages, on which we pondered his continuing value to the national team.

After Gascoigne's puffing performance in Tbilisi and a period of low profile, the debate over whether England can now afford to do without their once most talented player for the potentially epic contest against Italy at Wembley in 10 days is no longer so pressing. As the questioning of Hoddle illustrated, Gascoigne's status has diminished while that of others is enhanced. England have strong alternatives and Gascoigne's ankle injury sustained last week may be untimely for him but convenient for Hoddle.

"He's been fine, and his performances have been good," Hoddle said after announcing the squad last week, with a diplomacy he deems necessary if he is to further his aim of rehabilitating Gascoigne professionally and personally. "I have spoken to Walter Smith at Rangers about him and he has seen a change in the lad," he added.

"But as I have said before, it is going to be a long-term situation for Paul to learn from his mistakes without changing as a footballer. He has been relatively injury-free until this time. In the past it was something I felt was a problem. When you have negative things going on in your mind, you actually end up getting injuries."

Gascoigne is apparently still attending counselling. "The signs are that he has changed and he is looking to change even more," Hoddle said. Hmm.

In the long-term, the successor to Gascoigne in the centre of midfield looks to be David Beckham, with his all-singing, all-dancing, all-energy passing ability. Though Beckham has transferred his skills from the training pitch to the Manchester United first team and then shown he has the temperament for international football, Hoddle does not believe that he is yet quite ready to assume centre stage after only three caps.

"Putting the whole lot on his shoulders when he has 12 or 15 caps might be the right time," said the coach. "I think he can do it but we will probably get a better reward from him long-term by letting him have that experience first rather than throwing it on his shoulders now. There are other players in the squad who I feel can do it with the experience he hasn't got."

It means that Beckham will probably remain on the right side of another wing-back formation, his mission to supply the crosses on which Alan Shearer thrives. On the other flank, Graeme Le Saux - in the role vacated by the injured Andy Hinchcliffe - could offer a good balance, assuming he is close to his old self after a year-long absence through a horrible ankle break. Playing Stuart Pearce behind him would be one strengthening solution.

Gascoigne, at his best, remains irreplaceable by one player, such is - or rather was - his dribbling and passing potential. Thus the need is for two to recreate his contributions going forward. Steve McManaman and Paul Merson fit the bill.

Hoddle believes that the new Italian manager Cesare Maldini will retain his own 3-5-2 formation he has always favoured and that he organised the recent match against Northern Ireland in Palermo to effect the transition from Arrigo Sacchi's 4-4-2 ahead of the England match.

To undermine such a system, to pull defenders from set positions and create space behind them, requires a more thoughtful approach than simply stationing two strikers up front. Terry Venables always preached as much. With the subtle Teddy Sheringham injured, the need is for players posing problems from deeper and it could be that Shearer is supported not by Les Ferdinand but more withdrawn figures.

It was surely significant that Hoddle spoke last week of McManaman's best position as "floating". As much as England will worry about Gianfranco Zola, Italy will be concerned about England's individuals, and he named Shearer and McManaman. Though his finishing remains patchy and his passing unexceptional, McManaman's ability to carry the ball and go past players would add a different dimension to England's play, one to unnerve the Italians.

"There is no such thing as a free role and never has been," Hoddle insisted. "It is just that when you have the ball, one player has the freedom to go into different areas. It doesn't mean he stands around in a little yard somewhere waiting for the ball. That player will work very hard defensively within the team structure." It would seem to argue again against Matthew Le Tissier.

In addition, Merson is currently playing the best football of his career. His energy, contrasting with the breathless figure of two and a half years ago, is astonishing and his passing, with an appreciation of space and angles that few other English players have shown this season, warrants a recall. His effectiveness in playing as a withdrawn striker or attacking midfielder supplying Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright has been a significant factor in Arsenal's title challenge this season.

It adds up to an attacking array that would disturb the Italians more than a more predictable formation which would allow them to mark two attackers and leave a sweeper to tidy up. The variety is appealing. It offers, too, the opportunity to select further back a more defensive player to police Zola and/or Alessandro Del Piero. David Batty, alongside Paul Ince, deserves the chance after his splendid display in Tbilisi.

There was a familiar pragmatism to Hoddle when he said that though it was a "crunch" game in the qualifying group - from which only one nation advances automatically - he felt no more excited than he had for Moldova and Georgia. You don't get an extra point for beating Italy, he pointed out. Should England achieve victory, it might well feel like it, as a classic confrontation is anticipated.

When the England squad gathers at Bisham Abbey on Wednesday, Hoddle will begin the job of urging patience from players and public alike, of reminding his men how they rectified the mistakes of a scrambled victory over Poland by winning in Georgia, of showing respect for but not fear of Italy. There is every reason for this squad, Gazza or no Gazza, to be positive and optimistic.

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